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Saakashvili’s “Spy Mania” (II)

Eli Lake reports [1] whatever the Georgian government tells him:

Although the shooting war between the two countries has stopped, both sides have engaged in something of an intelligence war. Mr. Utiashvili said a recent operation uncovered a GRU-sponsored espionage ring that included the official photographers for the office of Georgian president and foreign minister.

As I have mentioned twice [2] this week [3], the alleged espionage ring in question also happens to be made up of photographers responsible for recently embarrassing the Georgian government by recording the government crackdown on opposition protesters two months ago. Indeed, one of the photographers said as much [4]:

Shortly after his arrest Abdaladze passed a statement to a newspaper denying the accusation and saying he believed he and his colleagues had been targeted on Saakashvili’s orders for photographing the bloody aftermath of an opposition demonstration on 26 May when riot police clashed with protesters.

“Our photos travel around the whole world and the press of many countries where Mikheil Saakashvili proudly presents the image of himself as a champion of democracy,” wrote Abdaladze. “He did not forgive us that we spoiled the image.”

Most Americans would normally assume that espionage charges against journalists in the wake of a government crackdown are politically-motivated. It’s always possible that the Georgian government’s official photographers were actually working for Moscow, but which do you think is more likely? While I don’t doubt that Russia is engaged in covert activity inside Georgia, I am extremely skeptical of any specific espionage charges that the Georgian government brings, and that is especially true when they claim to show Russian plots against the U.S. Embassy. One need only ask who would benefit most from the appearance of a Russian-backed attack on an American installation in Georgia to appreciate why this story smells fishy. It is worth citing from this report [5] again:

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.

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.


Robert Farley notes [6] that Lake’s reporting on the embassy case is based almost entirely on Georgian Interior Ministry sources, and calls Lake’s description of the 2008 war “tendentious” (and that’s being generous). Indeed, considering the incomplete reporting on the case involving the photographers, the story reads like one designed to stoke anti-Russian sentiment in the U.S.

Update: The AP reports [7] that the photographers have been found guilty after a 15-minute trial, but then released after a plea deal:

Three Georgian photographers have been found guilty of spying for Russia but given suspended sentences and released after a 15-minute trial.

A personal photographer of the Georgian president, an employee of the European Pressphoto Agency, and a Georgian Foreign Ministry photographer who also has freelanced for The Associated Press were arrested this month.

Despite initial pleas of innocence, all three confessed to supplying Russian intelligence with sensitive information.

The defendants and the prosecutors on Friday signed a plea agreement where the prosecutors asked for suspended sentences for them, citing the value of the information they disclosed to the investigators.

The suspended sentences range from 2 to 3 years.

The arrests caused outrage in Georgia and prompted calls to declassify the case files.

Isn’t it curious that the outrage in Georgia that their arrests caused never made it into Lake’s story?

As Thomas de Waal’s recent report [8] tells us, this catch-and-release plea bargaining is now quite customary in the Georgian judicial system:

The judicial system is currently strongly weighted against defendants. Anyone prosecuted in a criminal case in a Georgian court is highly unlikely to be acquitted. In Tbilisi City Court in 2010, the acquittal rate was 0.04 percent, or 21 acquittals out of 7,296 criminal cases heard. More than half the cases before Georgian courts are now settled by the system of plea bargaining. Defendants negotiate with the prosecutor and generally end up paying a fine in return for a reduced sentence or no sentence at all. In 2009 the fines resulting from plea bargaining amounted to more than 61 million GEL ($36.2 million). Supporters of the system say that it is efficient, saves time, and prevents even greater jail overcrowding. As Transparency International notes in a detailed report on the issue, however, “Lack of transparency regarding the calculation of the required fine and the amount of imposed and collected fines leads to widespread suspicion towards prosecutors and plea bargaining in general.

Of course, such a system could easily be abused for political ends against dissidents and/or to raise revenue for the state. That appears to what has happened in the photographers’ case.

Second Update: Paul Rimple is a Tbilisi-based journalist, and he has a short op-ed [9] on the arrests:

Of the dozens of people who have been detained in Georgia for spying for Russia, this is the first time that local journalists have been directly implicated and is the most high-profile case since 2006, when Tbilisi arrested four Russian officers for espionage.

The first instinct is to question whether this is another attempt to intimidate free media. Abdaladze immediately went on hunger strike following his arrest, and Kurtsikidze’s employer, EPA, affirms that this is all a misunderstanding. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders is concerned that the detentions might be some backlash to security paranoia.

Third Update: Yes [10], Lake’s story was on the bombings. He relies heavily on Georgian government sources about them, and he relies entirely on Georgian government sources regarding the photographers’ case. The point is that the story uncritically relays the official government line on all of these cases as if there were no reason for doubt. As I tried to make clear here, there are many reasons to doubt the Georgian government’s claims when it comes to charges of Russian espionage. If the charges against the photographers seem suspicious and motivated by political factors, that undermines the government’s credibility.

Fourth Update: The BBC reports [11] on the photographers’ release:

The BBC’s Damien McGuinness in Tbilisi says plea bargaining is a widespread practice in Georgia, but also a controversial one.

Human rights groups say the practice enables the authorities to strike deals behind closed doors.

In this case such a bargain means that the full evidence of why the photographers were arrested will now not be heard in a proper court hearing.

Our correspondent says the deal may mean freedom for the photographers, but it will further fuel the fears of some journalists, who say the government can use the threat of prison to force admissions of guilt.

Fifth Update: Lake complains [12] some more:

And Larison wrote about a graf at the end of the story and said nothing about the bombing of the embassy, which is what it was abt

Of course, it’s not true that I said nothing about the bombing of the embassy. As anyone can see, I wrote this:

While I don’t doubt that Russia is engaged in covert activity inside Georgia, I am extremely skeptical of any specific espionage charges that the Georgian government brings, and that is especially true when they claim to show Russian plots against the U.S. Embassy. One need only ask who would benefit most from the appearance of a Russian-backed attack on an American installation in Georgia to appreciate why this story smells fishy.

I was using Lake’s reference to the photographers’ case near the end of the story to illustrate the problem with uncritically citing Georgian government allegations about these sorts of cases. The photographers’ case is a very suspicious one. It has provoked outrage among Georgian journalists, and it stinks of political repression. That doesn’t come across at all in the Times story. That’s a serious oversight, it is relevant for assessing the merits of the embassy bombing claims, because the story relies almost entirely on what the Georgian government says. We are expected to take the Georgian government’s accusations seriously, so it matters that their credibility is not so great when it comes to making espionage-related charges.

Follow-up posts here [13] and here [14].