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Georgia: no pictures - no democracy!

protest.jpg

The recent arrest and detention of a group of photojournalists on apparently trumped-up charges continues to be a subject of heated discussion and protest in Georgia. The evidence and the so-called confessions contain a mass of contradictions and are a cause for serious concern about the real motivation for the arrests, explains Nino Tsagareishvili

Nino Tsagareishvili
25 July 2011

Editorial note:

For just under three weeks three Georgian photo-reporters were held in pre-trial detention, charged with espionage. The unlawful nature of their arrests, intimidation of the detainees, contradictory arguments, problems placed in the way of defence lawyers and the classification of the case as “Top Secret” are all cause for serious concern about the real motives behind the case.  The journalists were finally released last Friday following a closed trial and plea bargain deal. Supporters claim that their “confessions” were extracted only after physical and psychological pressure.

At midnight on 7 July, officials of Georgia’s Counter-Intelligence Department of Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) detained 5 photo reporters. They were the personal photographer of President Mikheil Saakashvili Irakli Gedenidze;  his wife, Georgian magazine Prime-Time photographer Natia Gedenidze;  Zurab Kurtsikidze, photo-reporter from the European Press Photo Agency (EPA); Giorgi Abdaladze, a photo reporter from the company Alia Holding and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs contract photographer; and Shakh Aivazov, who works for Associated Press. Aivazov was interrogated as a witness and released after several hours (it is thought that the American Embassy had a hand in his release, given his employment by Associated Press). The MIA still has not provided any explanation why they had to seize a witness from his home in the middle of the night.

None of the formalities required by law were observed during the arrests. The families of the journalists testify the officers came neither in uniform or with search warrants. “My parents and I were asked to hand in our cell-phones and leave the room. When we came back Giga was already handcuffed,” said Nestan Neidze, wife of Giorgi Abdaladze. Zurab Kurtsikidze’s mother gave a similar story: the search, she said, was carried out without a witness, while computers and other belongings were removed without being sealed.

protest.jpg

Civil society activists joined many journalists in a series
of protest meetings held in support of the detained
photojournalists. Photo (c) Demotix: RFE/FL.

Throughout the night relatives tried to establish where the detainees had been taken. In the morning, they discovered they were being held at the MIA Constitutional Security Department.

The charges and the ‘evidence’

The criminal case was immediately classified “top secret”. On 7 July the authorities issued the following statement: “The detainees are being charged with acting against the state interests of Georgia by handing over information of various kinds to an organisation acting for a foreign intelligence service.” Two days later, the detainees were charged with espionage, though by then there was already no mention of any “organisation acting for a foreign intelligence service”.

Video and audio material of case evidence was also made available by the authorities.  This included recordings of telephone conversations between the defendants, the testimonies of Irakli and Natia Gedenidze, video scenes showing alleged Russian contacts Anatoly Sinitsin and Sergei Okrokov (without any of the photo reporters), and documents classified as top secret allegedly seized from the defendants’ computers. None of the material released contains any evidence that the photo reporters had any connections with the Russian special services.  

The telephone recordings in particular give rise to serious doubts, as the investigating officials seem to have misinterpreted innocent conversations between the photographers. In one conversation, Zurab Kurtsikidze asks Irakli Gedenidze to send his bank details to a certain address so that money from Frankfurt could be transferred to him. Gedenidze asks him to call his wife since he is busy. Kurtsikidze calls Gedenidze a second time and asks him if he has sent the bank details. To which Irakli says he has.

Another telephone conversation takes place between Zurab Kurtsikidze and Giorgi Abdaladze. Kurtsikidze gives him an email address and asks him to send his bank details. Abdaladze asks if the money could be sent to Kurtsikidze and then given to him. Kurtsikidze refuses saying that it is a big office and things are not done that way. He asks him to go to the bank and open an account.

Zurab Kurtsikidze, as we have already noted, works for the European PressPhoto Agency (EPA), which indeed has a field office in Frankfurt. Could it be, therefore, that the “organisation acting for foreign intelligence services” in the initial charge actually refers to the EPA? If so, and if the conversation about transferring money to EPA’s Frankfurt office is considered a criminal act, how is it that the EPA has itself not been charged?

EPA: the secret link?

Sergei Chirikov is EPA’s representative in Russia.  In an interview with Radio Liberty, he confirmed that their employee Zurab Kurtsikidze used to buy photos from other photographers, and that some of the pictures of the 26 May protest rally being dispersed were bought from Irakli Gedenidze, the President’s private photographer. They also bought photos from Giorgi Abdaladze. Sergei Chirikov explained that he asked Zurab Kurtsikidze to submit bank account details for the other photographers to the field office in Frankfurt so that payment for these photographs could be made.  This was the context for the photographers’ telephone conversations.

“We are ready to explain that the work of our photographers was not of a criminal nature and was not directed against the state interests of Georgia,” reads an official EPA statement.

The most ironic part of the MIA video material is the part where just the Russian suspects are shown. Strangely enough, not one of the photo reporters is present in the picture. If the investigation had any hard evidence linking the photo with the Russian special agents, they would surely have made it public.

The ‘confessions’

The only evidence against Zurab Kurtsikidze is a statement made by another detainee, President Sakaashvili’s personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze. He says that he was allowed to sell photos to foreign agencies with the consent of the President’s Administration. He also said that when he became the President’s private photographer, Zurab Kurtsikidze tried to make friends with him, offering him money for photos of the President’s meetings. He agreed. Later, Kurtsikidze asked him for other information, which Gedenidze refused to give.  It was at this point that Gedenidze supposedly clicked that Kurtsikidze was in touch with the Special Services. Kurtsikidze then supposedly blackmailed him, saying that he would disclose receipts for payments Gedenidze had received for his photos.

“I am certain that my colleagues and I have been detained in connection with photos we took during the the dispersion of the 26 May protest rally.  I have thought about it a great deal and this is my conclusion.  On that day we took some really illustrative photos that showed just how the government treats its own people"

Giorgi Abdaladze

There are serious doubts about the accuracy of this ‘confession.’ Again, there is no evidence linking Kurtsikidze to the Russian Special Services. Neither does Gedenidze explain why he thought there was a link and exactly which ‘Services’ he meant. And as for the blackmailing, it should be remembered that Gedenidze had permission to sell photos to foreign photo agencies. Had the Administration discovered that he had sold photos without their consent, the minimum punishment would have been dismissal. Initially he just passed on photos of the President’s meetings and guests. The “blackmail” line does not add up.

Then there is the coincidence that Irakli Gedenidze’s wife Natia Gedenidze was released half an hour after Irakli ‘confessed’? According to investigators, she had also ‘confessed’ just at that moment.  Her testimony reads: “My husband Irakli Gedenidze worked as a photographer for the Press Service of Presidential Administration. He took photos of the President’s meetings and high-ranking guests. Then he passed these photos Kurtsikidze who paid him for them. Subsequently Zurab asked him to pass on other information. Recently, Kurtsikidze asked him to open a bank account so the money could be transferred through a bank.”

Other evidence made public by MIA includes documents found in the computers of the suspects, including: plans of the President’s Residence, a list of Georgian citizens working in the UN and plans for MIA to act jointly with the State Protection Special Services (the whole title is not readable). The documents had been marked ‘top secret’ in hand writing.

A suspect process 

Nino Andriashvili, a Human Rights Center lawyer acting for Zurab Kurtsikidze, believes these documents were obtained by illegal methods. In proper practice, sealed computers are supposed to be opened in the presence of lawyers. Instead, investigators had opened them before the lawyers arrived. Additionally, Andriashvili noticed Kurtsikidze had bruises on his face when she first visited him in the detention place. Though he stated that nothing happened, it was obvious that he had been beaten.

Andriashvili also complains about the problems she encounters when visiting her client. For example, she has been made to show her notes to the prison managers before she is allowed to leave the building. “I explained that he had no right to do this, but he insisted and I had to tear up the paper so as not to show him the content,” she said.

Kurtsikidze, Abdaladze and both Gedenidzes have all been defended by lawyers from the watchdog NGO the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA). When the GYLA representative Gagi Moshiashvili initially arrived at the prison, however “the investigator presented a letter signed by the Gedenidzes supposedly declining GYLA’s services”.  Suspecting the letter was fake, Moshiashvili requested a personal meeting with the detainees to discuss the situation. This was refused by the prison administration.

The link to the 26 May protests

The third defendant, Giorgi Abdaladze, was on dry hunger strike from the day of his arrest until 13 July. He wrote an open letter explaining the possible reasons for his arrest:

“I am certain that my colleagues and I have been detained in connection with photos we took during the the dispersion of the 26 May protest rally.  I have thought about it a great deal and this is my conclusion.  On that day we took some really illustrative photos that showed just how the government treats its own people. Two of my photos were published by Associated Press and appeared in numerous European and American newspapers and magazines. Zurab Kurtsikidze and Shakh Aivazov also published shocking photos. But Irakli Gedenidze’s pictures were the best. He came with the Special Forces and had an advantage over other photographers. The police knew he was President’s private photographer so nobody prevented him working. He took a photo of a person killed by the Special Forces, which he then sold to Zurab Kurtsikidze who published it through EPA. The photographer’s name was not given, but every photo reporter knew that Irakli had taken it.”

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A video of Giorgi Abdaladze's "confession" was released
by authortities on July 18. His lawyer claimed he had
been subjected to severe psychological pressure.

Were not for Irakli Gedenidze, Zurab Kurtsikidze and Giorgi Abdaladze, the world would not have got quite such an accurate picture of what happened on the night of 26 May: how people with their hands and feet tied were seemingly beaten to death by the Georgian Special Forces.

Contradictions

At first, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied that Giorgi Abdaladze was a staff member and said he was working there on a short-term contract. They changed their story later, apparently after realising that he could only be charged with the offence if he was a public servant. Not long after the first statement the Deputy Minister stated that Abdaladze worked for the Press Department and had access to sensitive information. In another contradiction, the Minister of Foreign Affairs said that, though Giorgi Abdaladze could not access confidential information, he had access to computers and could get hold of secret information this way.  The question of how any employee should have access to secret information remains unanswered.

"That since 7 July, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has been unable to present real evidence in support of the charge that the photographers were involved in espionage surely raises doubts that such evidence exists"

Representatives of Georgian civil society met the Minister of Internal Affairs on 13 July. According to them, the Minister was not able to adduce any additional materials that could provide grounds for the charges that had been brought. The Minister was, however, able to satisfy one of the journalists’ requests:  90% of the trial would be open and only the part of the trial dealing with secret documents would be closed.

Still, the fact that since 7 July, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has been unable to present real evidence in support of the charge that the photographers were involved in espionage surely raises doubts that such evidence exists. If these people were real criminals, and under police surveillance, how is it that there is no real evidence?  If an innocent telephone conversation could be recorded, how come they could not manage to record a conversation of a criminal nature?

The Ministry states that there is compelling evidence, but it cannot be disclosed because it contains state secrets. If they really had convincing evidence, then surely they would pick a fragment or a detail to satisfy public interest?

There is great concern that the defendants have been subjected to psychological and physical pressures to confess to the supposed crime. Eka Beselia, Giorgi Abdaladze’s lawyer, has reported that her client was put under psychological pressure: he was told that if he did not stop his hunger strike, they would torture his cellmate and so he stopped it. On 18 July, the Ministry published video material showing Giorgi Abdaladze’s testimony. Though the Office of the Prosecutor General stated earlier that it would publish his confession together with other investigation material, only the confession was made public. No further evidence was provided. Eka Beselia has said that his client was ready to take all the blame simply to get out.

In his statement Abdaladze talks about going to Tskhinvali in South Ossetia on a job in 2002, his detention by the de facto police of the breakaway republic, and then being forced into working for them. This contradicts an earlier version given by the head of the MIA analytical department, which said that, according to the evidence, Abdaladze had been pressurized by Kurtsikidze.  Both Abdaladze’s wife and Zviad Guruli, a former colleague, have also pointed out that the Tskhinvali trip was in fact in 2000 and that Abdaladze was not at the time working for the newspaper named in the statement. These kinds of inaccuracies give rise to suspicion that the case documents have been fabricated.

Despite the ‘confessions’, Georgian journalists mobilised mass protests against the detention of the photoreporters. Journalists protested daily in front of different government buildings, wearing T-shirts and holding posters entitled ‘No pictures - No democracy’. A group of ten independent TV and radio broadcasters held a special TV marathon dedicated to objective coverage of the issue. Few were moved by the presence of the ‘confessions’. “The protest must go on”, said Zviad Koridze, head of the Council of the Journalists’ Charter of Ethics. “The incidence of so-called ‘confessions’ has drastically increased in the Georgian investigative system and the judiciary recently, with the suspicion always lurking that such statements are made under pressure”.

P.S. On Friday 22 July, all four defendants were given a conditional sentence following a plea-bargain deal. Somewhat controversially, nine out of ten cases are decided this way in Georgia. The alternative – a full trial – in less than 1% of cases results in an acquittal.

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