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Scandal Over Georgian Editor's Arrest

Activists fear media under pressure following detention of independent newspaper chief.
By Dmitri Avaliani

The arrest of a newspaper editor on drugs and weapons charges in the town of Gori has sparked accusations of high-level media harassment.


A preliminary court hearing was held in Gori on August 4 for Revaz Okruashvili, the 55-year-old editor of the local Khalkhis Gazeti (People’s Newspaper), who was arrested two days earlier and charged with drug dealing and illegal possession of weapons and ammunition.


Okruashvili’s lawyer, supporters and media activists denounced the arrest as an attempt to silence an editor critical of local leaders, particularly President Mikhael Saakashvili’s representative to the region, Mikhael Kareli.


Already the affair has resonated through high government, with the interior minister saying he personally ordered the arrest, and warning that journalism should not be used as a cover for crime.


Witnesses described seeing Okruashvili suddenly surrounded while walking to work, forced to the ground and handcuffed. Police said they found 0.29 grammes of heroin on the suspect. A search of the newspaper office turned up two more packets of the drug, police said.


According to Okruashvili’s wife, Nino Dalakishvili, police also came to the family home. Police said they found a hunting shotgun which had belonged to a deceased relative, and several rounds of rifle and pistol ammunition.


The head of Shida Kartli region’s criminal department, Revaz Kldiashvili, who led the raid, said Okruashvili had long been under suspicion of drug dealing. Police had incriminating information from two men arrested previously, and “were waiting for the right moment,” he said.


However, Okruashvili’s lawyer, Mamuka Nozadze, said the arrest was a set-up and riddled with procedural flaws, including the fact that the required witnesses to the police search were present only after the editor had been arrested and handcuffed.


“That means there is every ground for serious suspicion that the narcotic substances were in fact placed by the police themselves,” said Nozadze.


He said he had evidence that one of the witnesses bore a grudge against Okruashvili and that the drugs in the office were found by police while they were alone in the room. That meant “the results of the search should not be recognised as having legal force”, he said.


Okruashvili’s wife, who is a journalist with the local Trialeti channel, also complained about the procedures used. Police arrived at her house without a warrant, she said, and after being refused entry waited for two hours.


“Rezo never had any dealings with drugs or weapons,” she said. “Not only I, but the whole town knows that. He once sold his house to finance the newspaper, and also went into debt. This accusation is absolutely absurd and insulting.”


She said the arrest was the result of his “problems with the local authorities, about whose activities he regularly published critical articles”.


Journalists at Khalkhis Gazeti said their material on Kareli, the presidential representative, had particularly upset the authorities.


“We studied his biography,” said deputy chief editor Vasil Guleuri. “There were a lot of gaps and plain inaccuracies….In addition, we regularly covered human rights violations by the local authorities, as well as questions about spending from the presidential representative’s fund.”


Guleuri said, “they did not like this at all, though they never tried challenging our publication through the courts or some other sort of legal method.”


In a sign that the scandal may have wider implications, interior minister Irakli Okruashvili has spoken out strongly in defence of the arrest. “No one should hide behind a newspaper or television in order to carry out illegal business,” he said.


Journalists and representatives of non-government groups from around Georgia travelled to Gori on August 3 to assist their colleague.


“Pressure on the media is already a fact,” said Mikhael Chitadze, of the Gori Information Centre. “The arrest… was connected with the publication of critical materials.”


Tinatin Khidasheli, of the Association of Young Lawyers, said she hoped “the prosecutor general will get involved in this affair and sort out the real reasons for the arrest”.


Late on July 4, the district court in Gori ruled that Okruashvili must spend three months in pre-trial detention while the police continue their investigation. If necessary, the period may be extended, the court said.


Okruashvili's lawyer said he would appeal the decision within the 48-hour deadline.


Dmitri Avaliani is IWPR’s Georgia regional media project coordinator.


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