TBILISI (Reuters) - The personal photographer of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and three other photojournalists were arrested Thursday and accused of spying for a foreign country.
The arrests appeared to be the latest targeting what Georgia’s powerful Interior Ministry says are Russian spy networks operating in Georgia since the two countries fought a brief war over the rebel region of South Ossetia.
A lawyer for one of the photojournalists, Zurab Kurtsikidze of the Frankfurt-based European Pressphoto Agency, said the case appeared to concern photographs taken by presidential photographer Irakli Gedenidze and distributed to the others.
Gedenidze and his photographer wife were both arrested, as was freelancer Giorgi Abdaladze, all well-known members of the Georgian press corps.
Moscow has accused the pro-Western government under Saakashvili of trying to whip up anti-Russian hysteria with a string of arrests of alleged Russian spies in the three years since their five-day war.
The interior ministry said they were accused of passing information obtained through their professional activities “to an organization acting under cover of the special service of a foreign country, to the detriment of the interests of Georgia.”
Relatives said they were arrested in the middle of the night by police who searched their homes and seized computers, equipment and mobile phones.
Kurtsikidze’s lawyer, Nino Andriashvili, told Reuters: “He is in quite a difficult emotional state because he does not understand the charges and does not accept that he is guilty.”
She said Kurtsikidze’s face was bruised. Abdaladze’s lawyer said his client was refusing food.
Media watchdogs accuse the government under Saakashvili of manipulating the media and squeezing press freedoms since taking power after the 2003 Rose Revolution. Georgia ranks 100th out of 178 countries in the 2010 press freedom index compiled by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
Several dozen journalists gathered Thursday outside the police building where the arrested photojournalists were being held, clutching their pictures.
Some held pictures comparing Saakashvili to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has drawn international condemnation for cracking down on opponents with hundreds of arrests after his disputed re-election last December.
Georgia’s Western allies continue to be uneasy over restrictions on media freedom, the concentration of power in the office of the president and the use of the police to discredit political opponents.
Russia said the latest accusations were far-fetched and spoke “to the level of democracy in Georgia.”
“The fact that they are labeling them and trying to present them as spies from abroad ... does not surprise us,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. “They seem to use these labels every time.”
Late Wednesday, nine people, including three Russian citizens, were sentenced in the Georgian port town of Batumi to between 11 and 14 years in jail after they were convicted of working for the Russian intelligence services.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton