Georgia sees spies behind the lens

By bne IntelliNews July 11, 2011

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

On July 9, three Georgian photographers were charged with spying for Russia in a potentially explosive case of alleged espionage that threatens to increase international criticism of the Georgian government's treatment of human rights and the rule of law. But are domestic politics the driving force behind the arrests?

Over the weekend, international groups joined the call for the government to provide more details about the men's alleged crimes, as well as open the trial to the public. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on July 8 urging the government to "dispel suspicions" that the arrests are politically motivated. "The authorities obviously have a duty to protect national interests but the current fear of spies in Georgia must not be allowed to fuel a climate of intimidation in the media, and security imperatives must not override democratic principles," the group wrote in the statement.

In a separate statement, US Ambassador to Georgia John Bass also noted it is always "a concern" when journalists are detained. "We hope the process will gain trust both inside and outside the country."

Journalists and media organisations have demanded the government release more information, and open the trial to the public. The trial is a closed proceeding because it allegedly involves state secrets.

Candid camera

Irakli Gedenidze, one of President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographers, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs' photographer Giorgi Abdaladze are charged with supplying Zurab Kurtsikidze with photographs of classified material, namely the floor plans for the presidential administration, details of the president's movements and information about the staff at the administration.

Kurtsikidze is charged with passing the information on to Russian foreign agents. Based on the limited information released to the public, the link between Kurtsikidze and the Russian operatives is still unclear. He is tied to the case, however, by confessions from Gedenidze and his wife. Gedenidze's wife - also a photographer - was also initially detained with her husband during the police raid on July 7. She was released on bail, however, after she and her husband issued a confession claiming that Khurtsikidze "blackmailed" them into supplying the information.

Both Abdaladze and Kurtsikidze deny the charges. On Thursday and Friday last week, journalists demonstrated in support of their colleagues in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) building where they are being held.

The operation July 7 came just hours after a Georgian court sentenced nine other men - including three Russian citizens - for spying for Russia in a separate case. The government, in particular Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, has stressed the threat of spies to Georgia's security and the need for tough measures to keep the problem in check.

Over the past several years, arrests of alleged Russian spy rings have punctuated the deteriorating relationship between Tbilisi and Moscow. Evidence in these cases usually rests heavily on secretly taped conversations. The ministry's use of hidden recording devices, and its practice of blanketing the media with evidence against suspects before their trials, has raised concern about Georgia's commitment to free trials and basic human rights.

Usual suspects

These latest arrests follow the pattern: two days after the photographers were detained, the government released taped phone conversations and alluded to connections with known Russian operatives.

To date, the publicly released evidence against the photographers appears to hinge on Gedenidze's confession, as well as a brief taped conversation where Kurtsikidze requests bank account information from his two colleagues. But Kurtsikidze's editors at EPA claim the conversations are innocuous: the agency regularly purchases images from photographers and needs bank account data for wire transfers.

The confession has also come under fire: Gedenidze's wife was released after they made their statements, and after they suddenly agreed to change lawyers.

The government, however, claims to be in procession of classified documents stolen by the men and passed to Moscow. In a statement to the press on July 9, MIA officials maintained evidence against the photographers is strong and ties them to officers with the Main Intelligence Division of the Russian Ministry of Defence.

While allegations of espionage have become more frequent since the 2008 war, these arrests mark the first time the government has moved against journalists - a development some observers believe is another blow to the country's tarnished reputation with the media.

Saakashvili's government has long fought allegations of pressuring and manipulating the media. In May, Freedom House reported that Georgian media is "partly free." The government, however, has been quick to dismiss allegations that the detentions are an attack on journalists. Presidential spokesperson Manana Manjgaladze issued a statement July 8, claiming the case involved "serious leaks" of information from state institutions - and was not a vendetta against the media. "[T]hey were not charged yesterday for anything connected to their activity as photographers," she posted on the administration's website. "They were charged for passing confidential information."

Koba Turmanidze, a political scientist and professor at Tbilisi State University, says the case is likely a reflection of internal politics as Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili tries to prove to Saakashvili he is the most capable to deal with threats to security and protect the state.

Turmanidze says that the volume of arrests on espionage charges adds to suspicions that the government could be "exaggerating" perceived threats in order to validate state spending on police and security. "These things [charges of espionage] are not just made up, but they are slightly exaggerated," he says. "We cannot say that those photographers are absolutely innocent but you can suspect that they were not able to do what they are blamed for [doing]."

The ramifications of the case, Turmanidze believes, are more significant for Georgia's domestic political future than any international relations as powerful ministries jockey for influence before the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.

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