Georgian Journalist Says He Spied for Russia

TBILISI, Georgia -- The personal photographer to the Georgian president was shown on television Saturday confessing to supplying a colleague with secret information that was then sent to a Russian secret service.

Irakli Gedenidze confessed to giving another photographer, Zurab Kurtsikidze, details of the president's itinerary, motorcade route and offices for unspecified remuneration. His wife Natia said she knew her husband was friends with Kurtsikidze and sent him the details of his bank account, but she did not confess to taking part in their dealings.

Irakli Gedenidze, Kurtsikidze and another photographer were charged with espionage early Saturday. Natia Gedenidze was released without charge.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Georgy Bukhrashvili told reporters Saturday that investigators believe Kurtsikidze, a photographer for European Pressphoto Agency, had "connections" with Russia's military intelligence unit, GRU, and hired the other two photographers to provide the secret information.

The spokesman identified two Russians -- Anatoly Sinitsyn and Sergey Okorokov -- as Kurtsikidze's contacts in Russian intelligence.

Bukhrashvili said the two men had taken pictures of the secret documents and then sent them to Kurtsikidze to dispatch to Moscow. The photographs were found in the two men's apartments, he said.

National television showed Gedenidze's and his wife's statements on Saturday.

The presidential photographer said that he had to agree to Kurtsikidze's final request to find information on Georgian secret services after the EPA photographer had started blackmailing him, threatening to make public their earlier dealings.

"I got scared and kept on working with him," he said.

Neither Irakli Gedenidze nor his wife mentioned in their testimony the other photographer charged in the case, Georgy Abdaladze.

Abdaladze, who works with the Georgian Foreign Ministry and has freelanced for The Associated Press, denies the espionage charge. The Georgian Interior Ministry, however, played a recording of what they say is a phone conversation between Abdaladze and the EPA photographer, where Kurtsikidze asks him to provide the details of his bank account.

Some photographers in Georgia have worked out a pool system where they can pay a colleague for permission to use a photo taken at an event they were not able to attend. They routinely exchange banking details.

President Mikhail Saakashvili said in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station Friday that he learnt about the spy ring half an hour before the arrests.

"This is not paranoia but it's about the rule of law and equality of everyone," he said of the operation to arrest the journalists. "As for the personal photographer, I got very upset about it and I am still."

Neither the Russian Defense Ministry, nor its intelligence unit was immediately available for comment on Saturday.

Several people have been convicted recently by Georgian courts on charges of spying for Russia. In the most recent such ruling late Wednesday, a court in the Black Sea port of Batumi convicted a Russian citizen and eight Georgians of espionage and gave them prison sentences ranging from 11 to 14 years.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told Ekho Moskvy this week that his agency has captured most of the Russian spies operating in Georgia, but a few are still left.

The spy flaps have aggravated already tense relations between the two former Soviet republics. Russia has dismissed the spy arrests in Georgia as a fabrication.

Under Saakashvili's leadership, Georgia has strongly cultivated relationships with the West and has said it aims to join NATO.

In a brief comment Friday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States hopes for a free and fair hearing of the case.

The three Georgian photographers are expected to face trial on Sept. 1.