|In Georgia, a Spy Case and a National Rorschach Test|
|August 01, 2011|
By ELLEN BARRY
TBILISI, Georgia — Last week, several days after the photographer Giorgi Abdaladze confessed to selling classified documents to Russia’s foreign intelligence service, he was released without being sentenced to a prison term or even given a fine. After Georgian officials had publicly excoriated Mr. Abdaladze as being a participant in a brazen espionage campaign, his 15-day prosecution ended as abruptly as it had begun.
The brief case against Mr. Abdaladze and three other photographers was a baffling one, even in a season of high Georgian anxiety about covert Russian activities. Because it ended in a plea agreement, like an overwhelming number of criminal prosecutions in Georgia, it will never be resolved in court, and all four of the accused risk spending years in prison if they violate their deal by speaking about it.
It has left behind a deep rift between parts of Georgian society — those who believe Russian agents have been able to infiltrate the closest circles around President Mikheil Saakashvili, and those who believe the government has entangled innocent people in its claims against Russia. Western officials, who must weigh whether to confront Russia over a series of Georgian charges, have been cautious in their assessment.
“The evidence is more circumstantial than direct, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that there is more,” said a senior Western diplomat, who called the case “a bit of a Rorschach test for this society.”
“The real tragedy in this is corrosion of public trust in law enforcement, and especially the judicial system,” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity in keeping with protocol. “People in Western capitals look at this and say, ‘Is this paranoia taken to an illogical extreme? What are you seeing that the rest of us don’t see?’ ”
The photographers, meanwhile, have returned to public life as confessed traitors.
In an interview a few days after his release, Mr. Abdaladze hunched in a chair, hollow-eyed, and insisted that all cellphones be removed from the room before he would begin speaking. He was careful not to discuss the charges or his confession, following the terms of the plea agreement. Asked whether he had betrayed Georgia, he chose his words carefully.
“The main thing I can tell you is that I love my homeland very much, and I’ve done a lot of things which prove this,” he said. “As for the accusation, I already said all this at trial and I don’t want to repeat myself.”
It was clear, however, that there was something he wanted to explain about his 15 days in custody.
“I saw things I have never seen before,” he said, his tone flat. “Something I couldn’t imagine. I have not been in this condition even after the war. However, I was angry after the war. Now I am not even angry.”
It was a jaw-dropping case from the very beginning, not only because of the way the suspects were detained — plainclothes officers knocked on their doors between 2 and 3 a.m., waking their families and searching the premises — but also because of who they were.
As Mr. Saakashvili’s personal photographer, Irakli Gedenidze, 37, could be seen for years scrambling after the mercurial president, like a shadow with a zoom lens. His wife, Natia, also a photographer, was detained with him but released two days later on bail. Zurab Kurtsikidze, 38, worked for European Pressphoto Agency, a news service based in Frankfurt.
Mr. Abdaladze, 38, worked on contract for the Foreign Ministry but also chased after breaking news; his 2008 photograph of a woman reaching up from the flaming wreckage of a building became one of the iconic images from Georgia’s brief war with Russia.
Soon afterward, Georgia’s Interior Ministry began releasing evidence that the three men — whose longtime friendship is documented on their Facebook pages — were in fact functioning as an underground spy cell.
Mr. Gedenidze and his wife gave confessions almost immediately. In a video recording shown on Georgian news broadcasts, Mr. Gedenidze said Mr. Kurtsikidze had initially purchased pictures on behalf of his photo agency, but then blackmailed him into passing on documents, which he suspected were sent to foreign intelligence agents.
The case seemed strong enough that Mr. Saakashvili went on a Russian radio station describing it as a shining moment for Georgia’s criminal justice system: even a well-connected man like Mr. Gedenidze, he said, would be held accountable.
“With regard to my personal photographer, I was very upset, and I am still very, very upset,” Mr. Saakashvili said. “But my personal feelings are a secondary matter. There can’t be anything personal in this.”
Public pressure over the case was mounting, however. Journalists protested outside the Interior Ministry, demanding that the government release hard evidence to substantiate its case. Mr. Abdaladze, who had hired a prominent lawyer in the political opposition, published a letter saying that the charges were in retaliation for him having distributed photographs of a May 26 rally that had been violently broken up by the police. He vowed to maintain his innocence.
A few days later, as legal teams began preparing for a September trial, the case came to a halt. Lawyers for Mr. Kurtsikidze and Mr. Abdaladze announced that their clients had agreed to plead guilty to espionage. They were released on probation, with conditional sentences ranging from six months to three years. Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tughushi, said that he had met with the defendants while they were in custody and that none of them said they had come under physical or psychological pressure to confess.
In some ways, it was not an unusual outcome. In 2010, 80 percent of criminal cases in Georgia ended in plea agreements, according to a recent report from Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner. Because of tough sentencing practices and a near certainty of conviction at trial — the average acquittal rate in trial courts last year was 0.2 percent — the plea-bargaining system has become difficult for defendants to resist, even if they would like to argue their innocence in court, the report warned.
But it is unusual for defendants accused of grave crimes, like those the photographers were accused of committing, to escape prison terms, raising the question of whether the state had the evidence to convict them. Shota Utiashvili, director of information and analysis for Georgia’s Interior Ministry, said last week that “from a moral point of view, releasing somebody who was providing enemy information during the war, that doesn’t look good.”
“It really looks strange to any foreigner, and to some in the service, too, but, you know, it’s always a deal between prosecution and defendant,” Mr. Utiashvili said, “and the only way to make these people talk was to promise them minimal sentences.”
He said the photographers had provided valuable information about spy networks and the vast number of classified documents they had sold to Russia in the past. In searches of their computers, the Interior Ministry was able to find “less than 1 percent” of what was sent to Russia, Mr. Utiashvili said. Among the documents, he said, were longstanding security protocols for protecting the president.
Nino Andriashvili, a lawyer from the Human Rights Center who represented Mr. Kurtsikidze, said that the documents included in the case were indeed important, but that at trial she would have argued that there was no independent confirmation that they had been found on the defendants’ computers.
In the end, Mr. Utiashvili said, the photographers were able to drive a hard bargain with prosecutors because they were so well connected among journalists, and because publicity over the case threatened to taint Georgia’s democratic credentials.
Without that public’s show of support, “they might have had three years or five years” in prison, Mr. Utiashvili said. “That sort of support encouraged them to demand the maximum. And then what we can do?”
Mzia Kupunia contributed reporting from Tbilisi.
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