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Photojournalists detained in Tbilisi on espionage charges

By Mzia Kupunia
Friday, July 8
Four Georgian photojournalists were detained on charges of espionage in Tbilisi early on Thursday. According to the Georgian Interior Ministry’s official statement, Zurab Kurtsikidze, the representative of the European PressPhoto Agency, Irakli Gedenidze, President’s Administration’s Press Service photographer, and his wife Natia Gedenidze, as well as the Georgian Foreign Ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze were detained by the Counterintelligence Department of the Georgian Interior Ministry. According to the Ministry they are accused of “providing various items of information against Georgia’s interests to an organization working under cover for a special agency of one of the countries.” The official statement of the ministry says the investigation is underway.

Along with Kurtsikidze, Gedenidzes and Abdaladze, police detained Associated Press photojournalist Shahk Aivazov, however released him after several hour’s questioning, Georgian news agencies reported. Aivazov told reporters he was questioned as a witness and treated “correctly” by the law enforcers. He said he has no information about other detainees and the reason for their detention.

Members of the family of the Foreign Ministry photographer, Gia Abdaladze have denied him having any links with foreign special agencies, calling the accusations “absurd.” Wife of Abdaladze, Nestan Neidze said she is “shocked” with the news. “I hope that everything will be cleared out,” she said. According to Abdaladze’s wife, police turned up at their house at 2am on Thursday morning, arrested her husband and took computers, mobile phones, CDs and a flashcards after searching the house.

The Georgian President’s administration has not given a lengthy comment on the issue. Speaking to the reporters, Press Speaker of Mikheil Saakashvili, Manana Manjgaladze confirmed that the photographer of President’s administration press service was detained. “I can advise you to take any official information from the Interior Ministry website. I can tell you that we confirm the fact of Irakli Gedenidze’s detention, who worked as a photographer at the President’s administration press service,” Manjgaladze stated. Foreign Ministry has made no comments so far about the detention of its photographer Gia Abdaladze.

European PressPhoto Agency (EPA) has told that they had no information about the detention of their photo reporter Zurab Kurtsikidze. A Frankfurt based agency has told Georgian journalists that nobody had contacted them from Tbilisi over the issue. As for the espionage accusations, the representatives of EPA said that “sometimes such speculations are being made” about the journalist when they are arrested for various reasons. EPA officials have said they will try to verify the information at the agency’s Moscow bureau.

Meanwhile tens of journalists gathered outside the so called Module building, where the detained photojournalists were kept as a sign of solidarity towards the detainees. “Any journalist should show more solidarity and express its protest against the injustice which has happened in relation with the photojournalists,” the journalist gathered at the Module building said, demanding that the Interior Ministry release more details about the detention. Some of the participants of the demonstrations were holding posters with Georgian and Belarus Presidents’ photos and “Misha Lukashenko” written on it.

Georgian Journalism Ethics Charter, which unites up to 200 journalists across the country has issued a special statement following the detention of four photo journalists in Tbilisi. The authors of the statement have demanded official information about the reason of detention of the photojournalists. Georgian Ethics Charter has called on the Georgian Public Defender, Giorgi Tughushi and the international organizations to “show immediate interest about the detention.”

Human Rights Center called on the authorities to “immediately release” the detainees. In its special statement the NGO assessed photojournalists’ detention as a “rude violation” of freedom of speech. “Human Rights Center appeals diplomatic missions accredited in Georgia and international organizations to timely react on the issue and demand the Georgian authorities to release the photo correspondents. Human Rights Center calls on the civil society to object to the terror, which has taken scary forms by the Ministry of Internal Affairs lately,” the statement reads.

Advocates of the detainees have declined to make comments for media, saying that the authorities have declared the case has been classified as secret. According to the lawyers, the detainees do not plead guilty themselves.