Georgia frees photographers in spy case

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A Georgian court on Friday handed suspended sentences of up to four years to four photographers on charges of spying for Russia, with the judge dramatically freeing all the accused in the courtroom.

The court said that the accused accepted the evidence against them and admitted their guilt but under a plea bargain, announced by prosecutors earlier, received only suspended sentences.

"The convicted can now be freed from the courtroom," said judge Zviad Esebua.

There were emotional scenes as the accused left the dock and joined their supporters on the court benches, an AFP correspondent reported. Some of their colleagues burst into tears and embraced them.

The sudden release of the photographers brought a dramatic end to the high-profile spy case which has sparked daily protests in the former Soviet state.

The accused, who include President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer, confessed to obtaining confidential data from state agencies that was passed to Russian military intelligence, according to testimony released by the authorities.

Presidential photographer Irakli Gedenidze, foreign ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze and European Pressphoto Agency employee Zurab Kurtsikidze were detained in overnight raids earlier this month, when police said they found secret documents including minutes of high-level meetings stored on computers.

Kurtsikidze received a three-year suspended sentence and Abdaladze and Gedenidze received four-year suspended terms each. All three had been in detention since their arrest.

Gedenidze's wife Natia, also a photographer who was released earlier but still accused, received a one-and-a-half-year suspended term.

All the accused told the judge they had not been pressured or mistreated in custody.

Irakli Gedenidze told reporters after his release: "I plan to continue my life," without saying more. Abdaladze said simply: "I am just exhausted and I want to go home."

Earlier a statement from the prosecutor's office said a plea-bargain deal had been agreed because the accused had pleaded guilty and given the authorities "information of particular importance for our national security" about Russian intelligence operations in Georgia.

US ally Georgia fought a war with neighbour Russia in 2008 and has regularly accused Moscow of running spy operations on its territory.

The prosecutor's statement said that during the investigation, the photographers had revealed the identities of Russian spies working in the country as well as the names of their Georgian collaborators and cover organisations operating on behalf of Moscow.

The case has shocked Georgia's media community and journalists have held a series of solidarity rallies, wearing T-shirts with slogans saying "No Photographs -- No Democracy" and raising doubts about the confessions.

The authorities however have repeatedly insisted that this is an espionage case based on strong proof and has no connection to the men's journalistic work.

Moscow has branded the spy arrests as symptoms of "anti-Russian hysteria" within the Georgian administration, which has angered the Kremlin by seeking to join Western institutions like NATO.

© 2011 AFP

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