(Updated text adds comments by Zurab Kurtsikidze’s one of the lawyers in fifth, sixth and seventh paragraphs)
Probability that the case of photojournalists, charged with espionage, will end with plea bargain deal before scheduled trial in September, increased after it has emerged that all three photographers, remaining under the police custody, agreed to give confession statements.
If the plea agreement – a widespread practice in Georgia’s criminal justice system often criticized by human rights groups – comes into play in respect of all arrested photographers, it means that the case will not be heard in substance through main court hearing.
According to Georgia’s criminal procedure code, plea agreement between prosecution and defense is approved by court decision and judge should make sure that the plea bargain deal is not concluded upon coercion; the judge should also examine the evidence supporting the charges. Many lawyers say that in overwhelming majority of cases the procedure is a mere formality in which judges approve plea agreements.
A source close to the investigation told Civil.ge that Zurab Kurtsikidze, a photographer working for the Frankfurt-based European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), agreed to confess and to strike a plea bargain deal on the condition that his testimony would remains confidential and would not be made public. The same source said that a potential plea agreement would “probably involve conditional sentencing” for Kurtsikidze.
Lawyer of Zurab Kurtsikidze has confirmed, that her client gave confession statement, but denied that any conditions had been put forth.
“There was no pre-condition put forth by Kurtsikidze while giving confession statement; he gave his confession statement in presence of lawyers,” Nino Andriashvili, one of the lawyers of Kurtsikidze told Civil.ge on July 18.
She also said that the issue of potential plea agreement has not yet been discussed.
Giorgi Abdaladze, a freelance photojournalist who was also working on contract with the Foreign Ministry, gave a confession statement on July 16; before that Abdaladze was strongly insisting on his innocence.
Abdaladze’s lawyers say they doubt about sincerity of his confession.
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office said new details of the investigation, which is likely to include extracts from Abdaladze’s videotaped confession, would be released on Monday.
Irakli Gedenidze, personal photographer of President Saakashvili, gave videotaped confession statement to the police on July 9; his wife, also a photographer, arrested on July 7, was released on bail on July 9.
Gedenidze’s videotaped confession depicted a picture in which Kurtsikidze was portrayed as an alleged ringleader of “the spy network”, which was providing information to the Russian intelligence.
But according to the most recent official version of the investigation, all three were recruited by the Russian intelligence separately and linked with each other later by their handlers. According to this official version, Gedenidze was already working for the Russian intelligence at the time when he started working as a photographer for the Georgian President’s administration five years ago.
Many journalists and media activists, who have been actively campaigning for declassifying the case, are unconvinced with confessions by the arrested photographers, saying that “dubious confessions” do not remove all those question marks they have about the case; they keep insisting on a thorough public scrutiny of other evidence into the case.