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16 Sep, 2009 20:51

Political motives behind journalist case in Tbilisi – Russian FM

A criminal case against a Russian journalist in Georgia is politically motivated, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said.

Besik Pipiya, a Russian citizen working in the Tbilisi bureau of the RIA Novosti news agency for almost four years, is now facing a jail term of up to three years for allegedly committing forgery. The fate of the journalist will be decided on Friday by a court in Tbilisi.

The document in question is his driving license, which he says was not forged, but rather simply has a typing error.

“Before I went to serve in the Soviet army, I was issued three documents – a birth certificate, a school certificate and a driving license,” said Pipiya. “The investigator who is working on my case said that my license was fake and was issued in violation of the law.”

The Soviet document was issued 32 years ago. In addition to being licensed to drive a category B car, Pipiya’s driver’s license mistakenly also identifies him as being qualified to drive a category C (commercial vehicle) car.

Pipiya’s lawyer, Roman Mkheidze claims that, “There are no elements of offense in the actions of Besik Pipiya. If a category was added to the document by mistake, it’s the responsibility of the authority which issued the document.”

The mistake could cost the journalist three years in prison, according to Georgian law. Parties opposed to President Mikhail Saakashvili insists the case is political and will only lead to a further worsening of relations between Georgia and Russia.

“It’s a rude provocation by the Georgian authorities,” insists Nestan Kirtadze from the Georgian Labor Party. “They puffed up a story about a document issued ages ago. There could have been formal mistakes, but to persecute a respected journalist for this only is a rude mistake.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry has already voiced its readiness to give a helping hand to Pipiya, who is a Russian citizen.

The RIA Novosti news agency has sent letters of complaint to the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters without Borders and of course the Russian Foreign Ministry.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that just looking at the details of “the so-called case” is enough to see how farfetched it is.

“The Georgian law enforcement agency ‘suddenly’ discovered errors in the driving license given to Pipiya 18 years ago by the internal affairs department in the city of Zugdidi [Western Georgia],” the statement reads, according to RIA Novosti. “The ridiculousness of these accusations leaves no doubt about the political motives behind the case.”

Meanwhile, as a criminal suspect, Pipiya has been told that he is not allowed to leave the city.

The agency's editor-in-chief, Svetlana Mironyuk, hopes the case against Pipiya is “just a bureaucratic misunderstanding and that common sense will prevail.”

“We were one of the few state-owned media outlets that maintained a properly functioning bureau in Georgia despite the difficulties in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi,” she said.

“The bureau helped us present balanced information from both Russian and Georgian newsmakers,” she went on. “That’s why this story came as a sheer surprise. We very much hope that there is no political intrigue behind this.”

“In any case, we will defend him as our colleague, and I’m sure the Russian Federation will defend him as its citizen,” Mironyuk concluded.

The journalist's employer, the Ria Novosti news agency, believes he will be freed soon.

“We very much appreciate the fact that despite tense relations between Russia and Georgia, we saved the bureau in Tbilisi and organized regular live link-ups between Russia and Georgia,” added Mironyuk. “We were doing our best to keep the information balanced. I do want to believe that it’s a formal mistake and that there is not a political intrigue behind it.”

The case is just the latest in a string of official incidents involving Russian journalists in Georgia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the agency has been helping to maintain dialogue between Russia and Georgia while contacts between the two states have broken down.

The ministry noted that it is not the first time the Georgian government has demonstrated a negative attitude toward such dialogue.

A month ago Tbilisi refused to let two Russian journalists into the country: Vladimir Mamontov, the editor-in-chief of Izvestia newspaper, and Maksim Shevchenko, a TV host, who were stopped in the Tbilisi airport and sent back home.

“RIA Novosti called a huge news conference in Tbilisi, with some 60 Georgian journalists invited. They all came to hear us speak, and we weren’t even let in,” said journalist Maksim Shevchenko. “You understand that it was a challenge for us anyway, we were in the minority. But this stupid decision, not to let us in, only shattered Saakashvili’s ratings, and raised that of the opposition.”