Georgia: Alleged Spy Photographers Freed under Plea Bargain
After pleading guilty to charges of spying for Russia, three detained Georgian photographers were set free on July 22 in a startling denouement to a case that has scandalized Georgian media and made headlines worldwide. But their release and additional evidence made public by the prosecution promise to do little to quiet the furor around the case.
At a Tbilisi court hearing, the prosecution requested mitigated sentences for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer, Irakli Gedenidze, Foreign Ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze and European Pressphoto Agency photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze. The court deferred the sentences and released the three men for cooperating with the investigation and admitting their guilt.
This came as a curve ball for local journalists and media activists, who have rallied steadily for the photographers’ release on bail.
Faced with widespread public concern that the arrests had more to do with an attempt to restrict media freedoms , the Prosecutor’s Office on July 22 had released more details of its investigation.
The government maintained that Gedenidze and Abdaladze had used their access to government offices to obtain and transmit what it described as classified information -- travel schedules, meeting minutes and a blueprint of the presidential palace, among other documents -- via Kurtsikidze to Russian military intelligence officers.
A government statement released shortly before the trio appeared in court on Friday reported that investigators had found in Gedenidze's apartment "electronic copies of classified documents" about "security measures" for Estonian President Tomas Hendrik Ilves' July 4-6 state visit to Georgia.
“Gedenidze also was in possession of documents containing rosters of all the office cleaners at the Presidential Palace and of the employees of the State Procurement Agency,” the statement reads.
In Abdaladze’s apartment, investigators said that they found electronic “copies of stenographic records" of July meetings between Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, Prime Minister Nika Gilauri and President Saakashvili with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Eldar Mammadyarov .
The released documents were largely blacked out, leaving only headers that shed little light on the materials' actual content.
The prosecution also released a register of alleged phone calls between Kurtsikidze and two Russian military intelligence officers, Anatoly Sinitsin and Sergei Okrokov, who are wanted in Georgia on espionage charges.
The result was that one surprised Tbilisi pensioner, Alexander Chikhladze, the current owner of one of the alleged GRU phone numbers, started receiving a flurry of calls from Georgian reporters. He'd never heard before from either Kurtsikidze or investigators, he said.
Many journalists and photographers, especially those critical of the Georgian government, had claimed that the photographers were innocent and supposedly had ran afoul of the government because of their freelance work, particularly that related to the May 26 crackdown on Tbilisi protesters.
Others were reserving judgment until the trial. But don't expect them to suspend it now -- thanks to a quick court hearing and a limited amount of publicly available hard evidence, the controversy surrounding this case is likely to live on.