If it were not for President Saakashvili’s ultimatum, a Georgian journalist and two others would have been released by now, Sergey Shamba, the Abkhaz foreign minister, told the Georgian daily Rezonansi.
“After the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [Louise Arbour] visited Basilaia [a Mze TV journalist detained in Sokhumi], we were planning to release him; the issue was almost decided, but it became impossible after Mikheil Saakashvili announced that he would use police force to release him,” Rezonansi quoted Shamba on February 29.
Arbour, who visited Abkhazia on February 27, told reporters on the same day in Tbilisi that human rights officers from the UN observers’ office in Sokhumi had met with Basilaia, but she did not say that she had personally visited the detained journalist.
President Saakashvili’s warning was also criticised by some opposition leaders in Tbilisi on February 28. MP Davit Gamkrelidze, the New Rights Party leader, said that Saakashvili’s “irresponsible statement” had prevented a possible deal on the release of the detainees. MP Levan Gachechiladze of the nine-party opposition coalition told Rustavi 2 TV’s late night political talk show, Primetime, on February 28 that the president's intervention may have actually worsened the situation.
Davit Bakradze, the Georgian foreign minister, however, defended the president, saying criticism of his remarks was in itself “irresponsible.”
Speaking on Primetime on February 28, Bakradze said that President Saakashvili’s warning that Georgian police would intervene if the Georgian journalist were not released, was a clear message of “what can be the price of such actions” – the detention of Georgian citizens.
“They [the Abkhaz authorities] should understand that we will not turn a blind eye on such things and that we will insist on resolving them, even if it costs us dearly,” the Georgian foreign minister said. “Of course, this does not mean that an unprepared, hasty operation will be launched tonight or tomorrow; this is a very difficult issue and we will not undertake any step that would pose a risk to our state, but, I want to repeat, they [the Abkhaz authorities] should know that the stakes are very high.”
Earlier on February 28, the foreign minister also said that intensive diplomatic efforts were underway to release the journalist. “Abkhazia is part of Georgia and the Georgian authorities have the right to undertake measures envisaged by the constitution on the entire territory of Georgia, including in Abkhazia. Of course we are trying to ensure [such measures] are not required; we are using all the diplomatic tools at our disposal to achieve the release of the detained journalist through peaceful means,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kristian Bzhania, the Abkhaz leader’s spokesperson, reiterated on February 28 that the Abkhaz side was not going to release the journalist and two others detained on February 26. He said that they would be brought to trial. All three face charges for “illegally crossing the Abkhaz border.”
He told the Abkhaz news agency, Apsnipress, that talks were not underway with the Georgian side on the issue. Temur Iakobashvili, the Georgian state minister for reintegration issues, also said no direct contact had been made. The Georgian side was, he said, in contact with UN observers and the UN Secretary General’s Group of Friends (Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States).
The Abkhaz leader’s spokesman also said that the Georgian authorities’ “determination to secure the release of the journalist, who has really violated the law, seems very strange, given how [Georgian] special forces attacked Imedi TV journalists [in November].”
He said it was also strange that the Georgian authorities in their pubic statements were insisting only on the release of the journalist and had not even mentioned the two other detainees. Indeed, the fate of Davit Tsotsoria and Maia Danelia has been totally ignored by President Saakashvili and other Georgian officials. Bzhania suggested the focus on the journalist was just “a PR stunt” designed to attract more intentional attention. The detention of “ordinary citizens,” he said, would not have received such coverage.