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Georgian President Pardons Country’s Only Jailed Journalist

Orlando, Florida / washington – Greeted by cheering crowds and surrounded by journalists, including from his own station, one of Georgia’s most prominent journalists walked out of prison Thursday hours after being granted a presidential pardon.

President Salome Zurabishvili announced Thursday evening that she had pardoned journalist Nika Gvaramia, founder of pro-opposition broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi.

Gvaramia, who also is a former member of parliament, has been in prison since May 2022.

Zurabishvili announced the pardon in a televised press conference. Later on Twitter, she said:

In May 2022, a court convicted Gvaramia of abuse of power related to his work in 2019 as the director of a separate broadcaster, Rustavi 2. He was sentenced to 3½ years in jail. The sentence made him the only journalist detained in Georgia over his work.

The Georgian Supreme Court rejected Gvaramia’s appeal on Monday.

Gvaramia’s wife, Sofia Liluashvili, told VOA she was “very excited” about the pardon.

“Now, I just don’t know what to do. Only thing I know is I am very, very happy,” she told VOA late Thursday evening while waiting for her husband outside the prison in Rustavi, Georgia.

Liluashvili was at home with friends and her daughter when the president announced the pardon on television.

“To tell the truth, at that moment, I don’t even remember what happened,” Liluashvili said.

After calling her two sons to tell them the news, one of Liluashvili’s friends drove her to the prison, which is outside the capital, Tbilisi.

“I was not in a condition to drive because I was very much excited,” Liluashvili said.

Liluashvili said she was grateful for the local and international support for her husband’s release.

Some critics have said that Gvaramia’s imprisonment was part of an attempt by the pro-Russian faction of Georgia’s government to derail the country’s European Union candidacy.

FILE - Nika Gvaramia, chief executive officer of Rustavi 2, speaks during a rally to support opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 in Tbilisi, Georgia, Feb. 19, 2017.

What the Case of Georgia’s Only Jailed Journalist Means for the Country’s EU Aspirations

Earlier this year, the country’s embassy denied that was the case in response to a question from VOA.

“Georgia has a free, independent and pluralistic media environment,” the Georgian Embassy told VOA.

A September 2022 poll from the National Democratic Institute found that 75% of Georgians support EU membership.

The EU has said Georgia needs to improve its press freedom record before its candidacy can be approved. Gvaramia’s release became viewed as a prerequisite for Georgia’s EU membership.

“Nika’s freedom means a lot for [the] Georgian people,” his wife said. “This is a very important step for Georgia’s democracy.”

Two days before the pardon, the U.S Embassy in Tbilisi published a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about the case.

William Courtney, senior fellow at the RAND Corporation think tank, wrote on Twitter, “President Salome Zurabishvili’s pardon helps protect democracy in Georgia, but the Prime Minister and the government continue to weaken it.”

Press freedom groups have welcomed Gvaramia’s release.

“We are thrilled that Nika Gvaramia has been pardoned. He should never have been jailed, and his continued imprisonment stood at odds with the country’s purported commitment to press freedom,” Gulnoza Said, who covers Georgia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.

Gvaramia’s colleagues celebrated his pardon as well. Journalist Eka Kvesitadze, who worked with Gvaramia at Mtavari Arkhi, told VOA Thursday evening, “It is an extraordinary feeling.”

“Big joy and big relief,” she added. “Tomorrow will be a different day for all of us.”

VOA’s Georgian Service contributed to this report.

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