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Georgia Gives Long Jail Term To Turkish Captain

The ship detained by Georgia at the port of Poti
KUTAISI, Georgia -- A court in the Georgian town of Kutaisi has sentenced the captain of a Turkish tanker to 24 years in jail for the "illegal crossing of the Georgian border and smuggling," RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported.

Mehmet Coskun Ozturk was captaining the "Buket" on its way last month from Turkey to the breakaway region of Abkhazia with gasoline aboard when it was impounded by Georgian authorities to the Black Sea port of Poti.

Judge Vakhtang Todia told RFE/RL that Ozturk was convicted of multiple illegal crossings into Georgian territorial waters and smuggling to Abkhazia.

Ozturk's vessel, reportedly laden with 2,000 tons of gasoline and 700 tons of diesel fuel, was bound for the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.

Georgia has imposed an economic blockade on Abkhazia.

Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, announced their independence from the Georgian state following an intense but brief conflict in August 2008 that saw Russian troops pour over the border into Abkhazia and outside disputed territory into central Georgia.

Tbilisi and Moscow have traded accusations of blame, but Georgia still officially regards Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Georgian territory.

Russia and Nicaragua are the only countries to have recognized those regions' independence.

Abkhazia calls the blockade an attempt by Georgia to suffocate the subtropical territory and threatens to respond in kind.

The tanker was operating under a Panamanian flag with a Turkish and Azerbaijani crew, all of whom aside from Ozturk have been released.

Reuters reports that the Turkish operator said the ship was in international waters and was detained at gunpoint, while Georgia said it was in Georgian territorial waters.