A Georgia court has sentenced a prominent journalist to three-and-a-half years in prison.
Nika Gvaramia, an anchor and owner of the pro-opposition Mtavari TV, was found guilty of abusing his position and harming the financial interests of a television station he ran earlier, a judge of the Tbilisi City Court said on Monday.
Mtavari TV is the country’s most popular television station and is critical of the Black Sea nation’s government.
Gvaramia has also been a lawyer for Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili who is serving a six-year jail term for abuse of power. Amnesty International has branded Saakashvili’s treatment by the Georgian government “not just selective justice but apparent political revenge”.
Gvaramia has said his case was aimed at silencing critical media. His lawyer Dito Sadzaglishvili said Monday’s verdict was illegal.
“Gvaramia was taken into political captivity. Political repressions are under way in Georgia,” he said. “In democratic countries, journalists are not jailed for their dissenting views.”
Georgia’s prominent TV personalities and managers have long accused the Georgian Dream party’s government of using the judiciary to stifle independent voices.
‘No proof of wrongdoing’
Independent media in Georgia have often had fraught relations with authorities since the country gained independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991.
In October 2015, Gvaramia said a government middleman had threatened to release secretly recorded videos showing what he described as his “private life” in an attempt to force him to quit journalism.
During 2007-09, Gvaramia held several government posts in Saakashvili’s cabinet, overseeing his anti-corruption crusade.
Saakashvili, the pro-Western opposition leader, who headed the small Caucasus nation of some four million people from 2004 to 2013, was jailed in October, days after secretly returning from exile in Ukraine.
Rights groups have expressed concern over media freedom in Georgia, saying managers and owners of nearly all independent TV stations critical of the Georgian government are under investigation.
Georgia’s rights ombudsperson, Nino Lomjaria, and legal aid centre Transparency International said on Sunday they had found no proof of wrongdoing after looking into Gvaramia’s case.
Transparency International Georgia issued a statement condemning the ruling as politically motivated.
The group said Gvaramia’s prosecution was the continuation of a campaign of “political persecution” against government critics, and “sends a clear message to other critical media outlets”.
“For years, the politicisation of the justice system has been one of the main challenges for the country and an obstacle to European integration. It is hard to imagine, given Georgia’s application for EU membership, that the government has not anticipated the damaging effect that its recent rhetoric, deteriorating media environment, and actions against critical media outlets could have made,” Transparency said.