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Thousands Of Satellite Dishes Seized In Georgian Vote-Buying Probe

A Georgian man looks on after checking a satellite dish on the roof of a building in Tbilisi in April.
A Georgian man looks on after checking a satellite dish on the roof of a building in Tbilisi in April.
Georgian authorities have seized thousands of imported satellite dishes that Tbilisi-based opposition broadcaster Maestro TV was planning to distribute for a "minimal, nominal fee."

The chief prosecutor's office in Tbilisi says the seizures on July 11 were part of an investigation into an alleged vote-buying scheme linked to Georgian Dream opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In June, a Tbilisi court assessed an unprecedented fine against Ivanishvili in connection with charges that he violated the country's electoral laws.

The Tbilisi City Court said Ivanishvili -- who plans to run for president in 2013 -- was illegally trying to buy votes by distributing the satellite dishes free-of-charge to residents outside of the capital.

Drastic Measures?

Residents outside of Tbilisi need a satellite dish to access Ivanishvili's TV-9 channel and other opposition-owned channels.

Prosecutors on July 11 charged that Maestro TV operated under instructions from an Ivanishvili-affiliated firm when it imported the satellite dishes.

Maestro TV co-founder Mamuka Ghlonti said the allegations were "absurd" and that his firm would challenge the charges.

Ghlonti told RFE/RL late on July 11 that he had a "sincere concern" that the prosecutor's next step would be to impose a fine against Maestro TV and try to take it off the air.

"Maybe they will impose a fine that is such a high amount we will be unable to pay, or perhaps they will fine us for such unjustified reasons that, on principle, we will refuse to pay," Ghlonti said. "In that case, they would next probably try to freeze our accounts and we would not be able to function any more. This danger is very real."

Call For 'Transparency'

On July 12, two Tbilisi-based watchdog groups called on the Tbilisi city court and the prosecutor's office to publish relevant evidence in the case and to present an adequate legal justification for seizing the satellite dishes.

In a joint statement, Transparency International Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyer's Association said: "Preventing the distribution of satellite dishes may be publicly perceived as a step that could limit citizens' access to media."

The watchdog groups said any action taken against media should be "proportionate" and "carried out with a maximum of transparency."

The groups also said authorities need to explain clearly to the public how the distribution of satellite dishes by Maestro TV qualifies as vote buying for the opposition Georgian Dream coalition.