Georgia photojournalist admits working for Russia

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One of three Georgian photojournalists accused of spying has admitted passing secret data to another photographer suspected of being a Russian agent, according to testimony released Monday.

The three news photographers have been charged with collecting confidential material on Georgia's pro-Western leadership that was allegedly sent to military intelligence officers from arch-rival Russia.

Foreign ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze said in video testimony that he had passed information about high-level meetings to the alleged kingpin of the spy ring, Zurab Kurtsikidze, a photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency.

"The most recent thing (Kurtsikidze) asked me to do was to take not only photographs, but also transcripts of the conversations," he said in the testimony released to journalists as a CD-ROM by the prosecutor's office.

Abdaladze said that he had collaborated with Moscow on a previous occasion after being blackmailed by Russian officers and feared that his past could be exposed if he did not comply with Kurtsikidze's demands.

He said he had gathered data on official meetings through his access to the foreign ministry's computers.

The 16 minutes of footage showed Abdaladze -- who had previously protested his innocence in a series of statements -- seated at a table with a lawyer speaking to Georgian prosecutors.

But the lawyer alleged that Abdaladze had changed his story due to fear.

"I cannot believe this confession because it was made under psychological pressure. He was in prison and he was very afraid," lawyer Eka Beselia told AFP.

The other suspect in the case, President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze, has also been shown in video testimony released by the authorities saying that he provided pictures and data to Kurtsikidze.

The photographers have been put under two months' pre-trial detention and could face up to 12 years in jail if convicted.

In a sign of the widespread concerns raised by the case, Georgian journalists wearing T-shirts with the slogan "No photographs -- no democracy" held the latest in a series of protests on Monday in support of the detained photographers outside the prison where they are being held.

However officials have repeatedly denied that the photographers were arrested because of their journalistic work.

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

Moscow has branded the latest arrests as symptoms of "anti-Russian hysteria".

The Georgian interior ministry on Monday called on anyone spying for Russia to get in contact by telephone, by email or in person, promising leniency in return for co-operation.

"Counter-intelligence of the Ministry of the Interior is actively working on revealing foreign spy networks operating in Georgia," a statement on the ministry's website warned.

© 2011 AFP

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