On Saturday evening, the Khashuri District Court in Georgia sentenced two employees of the China Railway 23rd Bureau Group Co to two months' imprisonment on charges of "obstructing the activities of journalists." The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported only the initials of the suspects: citizens of China S.U. (1983) and I.T. (1976) are accused of beating up the journalists of the opposition TV channel Rustavi 2, who visited a railway infrastructure construction site in order to “prepare a TV report about the problems arising during the construction work".
The Chinese company employees did not like such attention. They took away cameraman Levan Calandia's video camera, and pulled a microphone from the TV channel's correspondent Eka Gagua's hands. The journalists were injured during a scuffle. The leadership of the China Railway 23rd Bureau Group Co initially referred to the fact that the film crew entered the construction site without permission, although there were no signs of prohibiting filming at the entrance to the unfenced area. The director of the company, Yu-bin Yang, eventually apologized to journalists and the television channel for his employees' actions, recognizing that it was wrong to use force and take away equipment from journalists.
But it was too late. The incident has received attention in the media. The journalistic community expressed solidarity with the colleagues who were working on a a critical news story not about the Chinese company, but about the Georgian Railways, which hired it and which was recently headed by current Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze.
The opposition claims that Bakhtadze bungled the job, bankrupted the Georgian Railways, and would destroy the whole country being prime minister. These accusations were part of a stormy election campaign on the eve of the October 28 presidential election.
The Georgian authorities have faced a difficult choice.
On the one hand, China has become one of its largest investors in recent years, an agreement on free trade has been signed, China imports Georgian wines and agricultural products, while Chinese companies are implementing several infrastructure projects in Georgia. The construction of the Khashuri-Zestafoni railway section and several tunnels is just one of them. Moreover, taking into account the specifics of the Chinese state, it is very risky to spoil relations with it, because if Beijing considers that the contempt took place, all projects can be suspended, including cargo transportation from the Pacific coast to Europe through Georgia. Several trains have already tested this route, which promises Georgia considerable benefits.
On the other hand, the authorities are taking into account the influence of the most popular TV channel Rustavi 2 during the pre-election period, when the slightest pressure on the media may cause political accusations and lead to mass protests of hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters.
Therefore, they waited with interest in Georgia what kind of restraint for the arrested Chinese citizens would be required by the prosecutor's office, which is actually subordinate to the country's executive branch. If the prosecutors had offered the court to choose a release on bail for the detainees, it would confirm that the authorities were inclined in favor of the proposals "not to anger a powerful partner," made in recent days. But considerations of domestic political prestige prevailed: no one has the right to beat the citizens of Georgia, especially journalists in Georgian territory, especially when them perform their official duties.
A criminal case was brought against the citizens of China under paragraph 2 of Article 154 of the Criminal Code of Georgia "unlawful interference with the journalist's professional activities," which provides a penalty of two years' imprisonment; as well as paragraph 1 of article 126 "torture" (up to six years in prison).
Nevertheless, economist Giorgi Khukhashvili, speaking with Vestnik Kavkaza, said that a two years' imprisonment is not a reason to rule out a compromise. “We should wait for the sentence. Perhaps it will be a soft one, and the Chinese will be quietly sent home. It’s just that the authorities could not but demonstrate that Georgia is a sovereign country with civilized laws," the expert stressed. The expert expressed confidence that a compromise will be reached, and China is unlikely to scale down its operations in Georgia, since "the Georgian-Chinese cooperation, including in the area of railway transit, is of great benefit to both parties."