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Tbilisi, Georgia - Two days after he appeared at a Tbilisi press conference warning that media freedom in Georgia was under attack by the Saakashvili government, Georgian authorities detained, interrogated, and allegedly physically pushed, shoved, and bruised U.S. citizen Alexander Ronzhes as he was about to board a plane to leave Georgia.
Rondzhes is the 17-percent shareholder of Georgian cable provider Global TV, an independent television network whose largest shareholder is Alexander Ivanishvili, the brother of Georgian Dream opposition coalition Bidzina Ivanishvili.
On June 14, unidentified Georgian authorities who said they were affiliated with the Georgia prosecutor’s office stopped Ronzhes, who lives in New York, at Tbilisi International Airport. After seven hours of interrogation, during which he says he sustained visible bruises after being shoved into a security office at the airport, and separated from his Georgian attorneys, and after direct intervention by U.S. consular officers based in Tbilisi, Ronzhes was released.
Ronzhes had arrived in Georgia earlier in the week following a pattern of Georgian government actions against Global TV, the country’s major independent cable and satellite station, which included claims by government authorities – rejected by the independent network – that the television station was broadcasting illegally by reaching citizens on the wrong frequency.
On June 12, Georgian media companies Global TV, Channel 9 and Stereo conducted a press conference with Ronzhes which highlighted the campaign being waged by Georgian authorities against the companies and other media in the lead up to Georgian Parliamentary elections scheduled for October. During the hour-long press conference, Ronzhes discussed the harassment, detention and abuse of supporters of opposition candidates, ongoing arrests of reporters, and other attacks on political freedoms in Georgia, in addition to the pattern of attacks against Global TV.
Local representatives of Global TV debriefed by Ronzhes at the airport following his release stated that he was stopped at 15:25 at passport control by four people who did not identify themselves, and who claimed they wanted to question him about a money laundering case. They told him that they had informed the US Embassy, that everything was fine, and that he would make his flight. In fact, according to the Global TV representatives, the U.S. Embassy was not notified by the Georgian authorities, who only found about the detention of the U.S. citizen from Global TV.
Ronzhes was then subjected by the unidentified Georgian officials to extensive questioning regarding a property he sold during the current visit which he had owned since 2004. During that questioning, three officials restrained him and two pushed him behind, allegedly leaving physical bruises on his body, which were later filmed by a Channel 9 film crew that rushed to the scene. The officials interrogated Ronzhes about money from the sale that he had placed in a safe deposit box, repeatedly demanding that he provide them with access to his safe deposit box, where a portion of the proceeds were stored in cash.
Following interventions by local attorneys and the U.S. consular office, Ronzhes was released from detention shortly before midnight, and thus remains in Georgia.
On June 7, U.S. Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs expressed concerns about Georgian authorities “preventing a prominent political opponent from running in the parliamentary election and reported attempts to intimidate local opposition leaders, including denying them access to media.”