According to one Georgian opposition leader, the recent espionage charges against the three photographers discussed here are part of a larger pattern:

But some in Tbilisi believe the Saakashvili administration is taking things too far. In July 15 comments published by the Russian daily Kommersant, opposition politician Irakli Alasania, who was formerly employed in Georgian intelligence, accused Saakashvili of using espionage as a cover for politically motivated arrests. “This is his [Saakashvili’s] spy mania,” argued Alasania, a onetime Georgian ambassador to the United Nations. “Saakashvili sees everything as connected to Russia’s special services and politics. … He says anyone who is against me . . . is my enemy and is helping Russia.”

Tellingly, the government relies heavily on confessions in espionage cases:

Government critics contend that the sheer volume of cases against suspected Russian agents, coupled with the fact that the evidence made available to the public is often sketchy, with strong emphasis on confessions, indicates that espionage has become the government’s idée fixe. Self-incriminating statements, critics add, can be obtained through the use of psychological pressure.

These most recent charges are among the most suspicious because of the role the photographers had in publicizing the May 26 crackdown on protesters:

The latest instance — espionage charges brought on July 9 against three photographers — has raised concerns that Interior Ministry officials are using the accusations as a payback for the trio’s photo coverage of the bloody May 26 police crackdown on opposition protesters, an event that sparked heavy international criticism of Georgia.

Two of the photographers were working under government contracts at the time; Irakli Gedenidze as President Saakashvili’s photographer and Giorgi Abdaladze as a freelance photographer for the Foreign Ministry. The third photographer, Zurab Kurtsikidze, worked for the Frankfurt-based European Pressphoto Agency.

The possible use of the Interior Ministry and judiciary for political ends is just one aspect of Georgia’s heavy-handed justice system. Thomas de Waal described the results of the “extreme order” policy of Interior Minister Merabishvili in his recent report:

Under Merabishvili’s guidance, crime rates have fallen in Georgia. Levels of street crime, car theft, and murder have all dropped. Polls show the police have a high degree of public support. However, there are concerns that police officials wield power that makes them politically unaccountable. In 2011 the European Court of Human Rights rebuked the Georgian government for obstructing justice in a notorious case in which police officers were accused of murder. At the same time, the “zero tolerance” policy on crime has swelled the prison population from 6,654 in 2004 to 23,684 in 2010. That makes Georgia the state with the fifth-highest prison population per capita in the world. Prison overcrowding is a major problem, and the public defender complained that in 2010, 142 prisoners had died in jail, a sharp increase from the year before.

De Waal raises concerns about these trends in his concluding remarks:

In 2011 there are worrying signs about the direction Georgia is heading. The modern Georgian project has many internal contradictions to it and is much less free than it looks. Some of the modern Georgian reforms have cured one problem while creating another. Reform of the police force and a broadly successful fight against crime and corruption, for example, have resulted in a criminal justice system in which acquittals in criminal cases are almost impossible, the prisons are overcrowded, and the Interior Ministry is the most powerful arm of government. Law enforcement bodies, such as the tax police, possess great power and are perceived as an instrument of political control. h is raises Juvenal’s famous old question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, “Who is guarding the guards themselves?”