TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's personal photographer was arrested Thursday on suspicion of espionage, along with his wife and two other photographers amid a crackdown on alleged Russian spies in the pro-Western, ex-Soviet nation.
The Interior Ministry said in a terse statement that the detainees were Irakli Gedenidze, the photographer for Saakashvili; Zurab Kurtsikidze of the European Pressphoto Agency and Foreign Ministry photographer Georgy Abdaladze. Gedenidze's wife also was arrested.
Kurtsikidze's attorney, Nino Andriashvili, told The Associated Press that her client says he is innocent. She declined to comment further. Abdaladze's lawyer, Ramaz Chinchaladze, told Georgia's Rustavi-2 television that he is innocent.
AP photographer Shakh Aivazov was also detained Thursday, but was released after several hours without being charged. Abdaladze, a contract photographer, also has worked as a stringer for the AP, most recently covering clashes between police and protesters in Tbilisi in May.
The statement said they were accused of providing information to a special service of an unspecified foreign country to the detriment of Georgia's interests. It gave no further details.
Aivazov said five police officers came to his apartment before dawn on Thursday. They did not show a warrant but he let them search the home. They asked to see his archive of photos, which were kept on CDs at the AP office, and Aivazov said he accompanied police to the office, then a police station.
"They asked no questions," he said. "Just took my equipment and told me to go home."
He was released in the early afternoon and told the equipment — a computer and CDs — would be returned, but by Thursday night the AP was still waiting for that to happen.
Saakashvili's opponents and critics accuse him of implementing policies that stifle media freedom in the nation of 5 million.
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 Russian Ekho Moskvy radio Wednesday that his agency captured most of the Russian spies operating in Georgia, but is still tracking a few who are left. "Georgia has cut 90 percent of the channels that Russian special services had," he said.
The spy flaps have aggravated already tense relations between the two former Soviet republics, which fought a brief but bitter war in 2008. Russia has dismissed the spy arrests in Georgia as a fabrication.
Asked about Thursday's arrests in Georgia, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that they "testify about the level of democracy in Georgia."
"It's not surprising for us that they keep attaching labels and try to cast them as spies," Lukashevich said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Saakashvili's own rise to power during the Rose Revolution protests in 2003 was fueled by independent media. He was widely praised for democratic and economic reforms that spurred growth in the nation notorious for rampant bureaucracy and corruption.
But his reformist image was tarnished by a violent crackdown on opposition rallies in the fall of 2007. During a series of opposition protests, riot police burst into the office of an independent television station causing it to stop broadcasts.
Shortly afterwards, Saakashvili's government introduced a 15-day ban on news broadcasts, saying media reports triggered the rallies.
Dissatisfaction with him increased further after Georgia's brief war with Russia in 2008, in which Georgia fully lost control of two Russia-friendly separatist provinces.