Georgian journalists charged with spying for Russia

Three Georgian photojournalists were accused today of passing secret information regarding the movements of President Mikheil Saakashvili to Russian intelligence and were charged with espionage.

The case is being followed closely by media watchdogs and rights groups. Reporters Without Borders warned yesterday against allowing the fear of spies that pervades the former Soviet republic to fuel "a climate of intimidation in the media".

The three - Saakashvili's personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze, freelancer Giorgi Abdaladze and Zurab Kurtsikidze of the European Pressphoto Agency - were charged in the early hours today, their lawyers said.

They were remanded in custody for two months pending trial.

A fourth, Gedenidze's photographer wife Natia, was released but declined to talk to reporters.

Georgia has vigorously defended the arrests, denying they were politically motivated or an attack on press freedom.

They are the latest of dozens of arrests of suspected Russian spies since Georgia and Russia fought a brief war over rebel South Ossetia in August 2008. Moscow has accused Saakashvili's government of trying to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry accused Kurtsikidze of having links with Russia's powerful military intelligence service known by its Russian acronym GRU.

It said he was given secret information by Gedenidze and Abdaladze, who worked as a contract photographer for the Georgian Foreign Ministry, "which he was passing to Moscow".

It said police searching their homes had found photocopied plans of the layout of the presidential building, information about the president's meetings and routes of his trips.

Television channels broadcast police recordings of telephone conversations in which men identified as Abdaladze, Gedenidze and Kurtsikidze are heard discussing payment from a Frankfurt-based company for photographs.

EPA is based in Frankfurt. Abdaladze and Gedenidze frequently sold photographs to Western news agencies.

Saakashvili denied it was a matter of paranoia.

"I believe nobody has any doubts that we are the first target for a giant country run by former KGB agents," he told Russian Ekho Moskvy radio, referring to Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet spy.

"My private photographer, my relatives, can be investigated," he said. "Everyone knows my position. I have no constraints. If my son were doing it, let them investigate my son. This is not paranoia."

Abdaladze's lawyer, Ramaz Chinchaladze, said his client was refusing food and considered the accusations "madness".

"He continues his hunger strike, he feels very weak, but he does not accept his guilt," he told reporters after the three were charged. They face between eight and 12 years in jail.

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