The personal photographer for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and two others were charged Saturday with spying for Russia, officials said, as a cold war between the two countries showed no signs of abating.
Saakashvili photographer Irakli Gedenidze, Foreign Ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze and European Pressphoto Agency photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze had been arrested Thursday. Their lawyers said Saturday that the espionage trial may start as early as Sept. 1.
Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet republic, fought a brief war in August 2008, and diplomatic relations between the two countries have been severed since then. Moscow imposed economic sanctions against Georgia, and law enforcement forces in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, regularly arrest alleged Russian spies.
The Georgian Interior Ministry said Saturday that the investigation of the photographers had revealed that Gedenidze and Abdaladze “took photos of documents containing secret information and in exchange for a financial reward” passed them on to Kurtsikidze, who “maintained contacts with officers of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Defense Ministry.”
Later Saturday, Georgia’s Rustavi 2 TV network ran video footage released by the Interior Ministry in which Gedenidze confessed that he had been providing photos to Kurtsikidze, and then was drawn into passing on other information.
“Zurab [Kurtsikidze] demanded that I provide other information too, which went beyond my professional duties of taking pictures,” the arrested presidential administration photographer said on camera. “At that point I realized it had something to do with special services.”
Gedenidze said that he refused at first but was coerced into cooperating and added that he knew the photographs had been sent to a photo agency in Moscow. He admitted he was paid for his cooperation.
Soso Tsintsadze, the president of the Diplomatic Academy of Georgia, a university in Tbilisi, said he was surprised by the confession.
“Well, we have learned not to be surprised by anything going on in Georgia these days, but it is really a most curious case because people accused of espionage today are well-known professional photographers,” Tsintsadze said. “Everybody now wants to see some solid evidence to back this confession.”
The other two detainees have not made any admission of guilt, their lawyers and family members said Saturday.
“All charges against my husband are absurd,” Nestan Neidze, Abdaladze’s wife, said in an interview. “For many years he has been a professional photographer, and risked his life many times during the recent war.”
Officials in Moscow vehemently denied any involvement in the case.
“By exposing more and more Russian spies, Saakashvili pursues one of his main tasks: to consolidate the nation in its standoff against Russia,” lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev said. “Saakashvili is not a comfortable negotiations partner for us, but I swear that we don’t have any plans to physically eliminate him or even follow his schedule via his photographers.”
Special correspondent Jinjikhashvili reported from Tbilisi and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.