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In November of 2009, newspaper journalist Tedo Jorbenadze was walking to meet a source in the Georgian port city of Batumi when a car swerved to a stop and a man got out.
“He said he was from the police and I had to go with him,” Jorbenadze recalls. “I told him that I would not go unless I could inform my editor.”
When he returned to the newsroom, the phone rang. This time a man said that the case was about his sexual partner and he should come to the police office.
The next day, Jorbenadze went to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ (MIA) Constitutional Security Department (referred to as “KUDI” from its acronym in the Georgian language) on Griboedov Street in Batumi. With him were his editors at his newspaper, Batumelebi, who were told to wait out of earshot.
Two officers talked to him. One held a file with photos, which he fanned in front of Jorbenadze, saying they depicted his homosexual relationship with his partner. Jorbenadze could not see them well enough to know who was depicted.
“We will send these photos and other materials we have about you to your father, who, we know, is ill,” Jorbenadze recalls the officers as saying. “Everybody will learn of your sexual orientation. Nobody will give you an interview. You will lose your job. You will not be able to live in this city and you will not ever get married if you do not cooperate with us.”
He says the officers never really spelled out what they wanted him to do, saying only that there was “interest” in Batumelebi by the special services of foreign countries–in particular Turkey and Russia–and they needed his assistance and cooperation, since he was one of the decision-makers at the newspaper.
Jorbenadze is just one person among maybe hundreds or thousands of important persons who were spied on by police and military officials loyal to the government of Mikheil Saakashvili. Critics say the recordings were used to control the political process, destroy enemies and control opposition actors. The news government is struggling with what do with some 18,000 recordings that have come to light with more likely to be found.
Instead of cooperating with KUDI, Jorbenadze and his colleagues held a press conference about the incident. The Media Development Investment Fund, which has supported Batumelebi for a number of years, contacted the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, which sent an open letter to President Mikheil Saakashvili. According to Jorbenadze, other organizations, including the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and a Serbian Journalists Association, joined in urging the Georgian government to investigate the Jorbenadze case.
Jorbenadze told OCCRP the MIA’s Inspector General announced the case would be investigated. To date, it has not been concluded.
Since the “Georgian Dream” coalition won the election last year, the prosecutor’s office has twice called Jorbenadze to testify. Recently, Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili has promised that a decision would be made within a “reasonable time”.
Jorbenadze’s refusal to submit to blackmail and his willingness to go public is highly unusual in Georgia, where homosexuality is deeply stigmatized. Prosecutors say they are now investigating the activities of a blackmail ring, allegedly run by military police that amassed and used incriminating videos to control victims’ behavior.
Identoba is a civil rights organization that focuses on protecting the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people. Nino Bolkvadze, a lawyer who works with Identoba, says the blackmail ring’s modus operandi was simple and ruthless.
“Police contacted good-looking homosexuals, and blackmailed them with exposure themselves if they did not entrap others,” she says.
She cites a young man who came to Identoba for help after seeing himself in a homosexual sex video, one of several aired by television channels earlier this year. The prosecutor’s office said that the videos were filmed by a military police unit at the Defense Ministry to blackmail “well-known” men having gay sex.
The man told Identoba he was forced to entrap targets by people from the Ministry of Internal Affairs–not the military police–who threatened that “his homosexuality would be revealed, his family members and relatives would know about his sexual orientation, he could lose his job and his reputation could be seriously harmed,” Bolkvadze says.
He told her that in early 2012, he was told to socialize with various politicians and other celebrities. From spring to early fall, he lured men from this group to a special apartment, equipped with cameras and other recording devices, in order to record sex acts with them.
When the videos were broadcast, even though the faces were blurred “he was shocked, he thought that his family members, relatives and acquaintances would detect him (which fortunately did not happen). He even wanted to leave the country. He is a victim like the other people in these records,” says Bolkvadze.
Today, she says, he barely leaves his house. “He is so frightened and depressed that he does not agree to talk openly under any conditions, since he is afraid of revenge and the rage of society.”
She said that four MIA officials have been arrested in connection with this case, which is underway at Tbilisi Municipality court.
Another person swept up in the surveillance scandal is journalist Giorgi Paresishvili.
Paresishvili further claims that the video was leaked in retaliation because he has accused several Georgian Dream officials of misdeeds, including Deputy Interior Minister Gela Khvedelidze, who had access to the archive of surveillance material.
Khvedelidze has been fired for leaking the video and now faces charges.
In another incident, Beso Surmava, at the time Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s bodyguard, was allegedly abducted. A few days before the election, Surmava appeared in a video posted on Youtube, saying that he had made audio recordings of Georgian Dream Coalition members upon the instruction of Ivanishvili.
The recordings, of profane squabbles among Georgian Dream politicians, were may have been intended to alienate voters from the coalition. Vanishvili denied ever ordering such recordings. According to the prosecutor’s office, it later emerged that KUDI officers had blackmailed Surmava using video recordings of his private life. He was also paid €150,000, which according to the chief prosecutor was seized as evidence.
Former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Shota Khizanishvili was arrested in connection with this case, along with at least 10 other MIA officials.
The surveillance of politicians affected not just them but also their families. Says Eka Beselia, chairwoman of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights and Civil Integration, “I could see suspicious cars near my home, work, and at places where I met with voters.”
Shortly before the election, a recording of one of her phone calls – in which she criticized a fellow Georgian Dream politician – was broadcast on TV news. Beselia is certain the government released the recording to the media.
“The former government was controlling everyone who was deemed to be their opponent,” she says. “They wanted total control over the opposition.” She says opposition politicians routinely left their mobile phones outside rooms where they met, so that they could not be used to eavesdrop on conversations.
Even relatives were targeted, she says. “Police arrested my son, who was a student, for public disturbance. She says the case was dropped, but then “two weeks later, when I took part in a protest movement, my son and my brother were arrested. This period was very difficult for my family.”
Similar cases among the 18,000 surveillance files remain one of the most difficult challenges for the current Georgian government. The motto of Georgian Dream coalition to restore justice in the country—which presumably led to its victory—is yet to be fulfilled.