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Georgia31 March 2006

Reporters without borders casts doubt on validity of charges in Chalva Ramishvili case

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Reporters Without Borders described as “very thin”, evidence of “extortion” produced against two journalists on which a Tbilissi court on 29 March sentenced Chalva Ramishvili, co-founder of independent TV station 202 and managing editor David Kokhreidze, to respectively four and three years in prison.

The authorities accused them of having blackmailed a deputy in the ruling party, Koba Bekaouri, during an interview, extracting 100,000 dollars from him.

According to the charges against them, the two journalists tried to sell their silence because they had compromising information about the deputy. The journalists say they wanted to trap Bekaouri, because he had just acquired a private customs clearance company in dubious circumstances. They said they were preparing their next investigative programme on official corruption - a widespread scourge in Georgia. But the deputy secretly filmed the journalists and the footage was used by the judge as evidence against them.

“The evidence advanced by the prosecution to support the the theory of extortion appears to us very thin,” the press freedom organisation said. “We do not believe that the judge sufficiently took into account the occupations of the accused and their sometimes radical methods of investigation designed to trap corrupt officials. The judge also failed to establish why the deputy had hidden a camera, an unusual practice for a deputy giving an interview. Finally, the sentences handed down appear to us disproportionate. If the prosecution does not produce more convincing evidence, we believe that on appeal the judges will have no choice but to clear the two journalists.”.

Chalva Ramishvili and David Kokhreidze were arrested on 27 August 2005 and have been in custody since then, on the strength of Koba Bekaouri’s allegations. They have protested their innocence throughout, believing they are victims of a set-up. Their lawyers said after the verdict that the sentences were political. Opposition parties who attending the hearing said they had expected such an outcome and condemned the court’s lack of independence. The opposition accuses the government of President Mikhaïl Saakachvili, winner of the “Rose Revolution” in 2003, of wanting to bring the media to heel. The two journalists ran a no-holds- barred talkshow targeting the head of state and corruption among the country’s officials. Koba Bekaouri had his parliamentary immunity lifted in February because his financial activities were found to be incompatible with his status as a deputy. In the Ramishvil case, the opposition says the authorities are seeking to gag one of the rare critical media. The channel, 202, is the country’s only independent station.

Lawyers for the journalists said they would appeal within the allotted two-week time period.

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