The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has called upon Georgia's Supreme Court to temporarily suspend a ruling that would hand over a popular independent television station to an owner with alleged ties to the government.
Georgia's Justice Ministry said a letter confirming the decision of the European court was received on March 3 by lawyers from Rustavi-2 TV, a popular station known for reports that are critical of the government in Tbilisi.
Georgia's Supreme Court ruled late on March 2 that Rustavi-2 TV should be returned to former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi.
The ruling angered government opponents in Georgia and caused concern in the West about freedom of the media in the former Soviet republic.
The ECHR letter of March 3 says that "the enforcement of the Supreme Court's decision" of March 2 "should be suspended and that the authorities should abstain from interfering" in any manner with the "editorial policy" of Rustavi-2 TV.
The letter also describes the ECHR ruling as an "interim measure [that] is granted temporarily" until March 8.
The ECHR describes "interim measures" as an "urgent measure which, according to the Court's well-established practice, apply only where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm."
The ECHR says it grants requests for an interim measure "only on an exceptional basis, when the applicant would otherwise face a real risk of serious and irreversible harm."
WATCH: Rally For Pro-Opposition Georgian TV Station
Demonstrators who have been protesting the Georgian Supreme Court's ruling were cheering on the streets of Tbilisi after the head of Rustavi-2 TV, Nika Gvaramia, announced the ECHR's decision.
Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Supreme Court in Tbilisi on March 2 to protest its ruling and then moved to Rustavi-2's headquarters, where some continued their rally on March 3.
The demonstrators claim the Georgian court's decision was made to help the authorities in Tbilisi silence criticism.
Khalvashi contends that the Georgian authorities under former President Mikheil Saakashvili forced him to sell the station at an undervalued price.
Opposition politicians charge that billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded the Georgian Dream coalition and served as prime minister for a year, was behind the court ruling.
Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili's party in an election in 2012 and strengthened its hold on power in another ballot in October 2016.
No one was available at the ECHR in Strasbourg late on March 3 to comment about the letter
Georgia is one of 47 members of the ECHR, which was established in 1959 and bases its rulings on the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi had said the court ruling "could effectively limit the access of opposition voices to Georgian broadcast media."
"We urge the Georgian government to take steps to ensure that the media environment remains free, open, and pluralistic," the embassy's March 2 statement said.
"Disappointing move & huge blow to media pluralism in #Georgia," Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) media-freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said on Twitter.
On March 3, Mijatovic urged the Georgian authorities to "ensure media independence and pluralism" following the ruling, according to a statement.
Rustavi-2 "must continue to enjoy full independence and fulfill its professional activity in the public interest," Mijatovic said. "Possible attempts to influence the editorial policy of Rustavi-2...would seriously undermine the pluralistic media environment."
With reporting by Ron Synovitz and Mark Najarian