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Georgia Jails Prominent Pro-Opposition Media Owner 

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

Georgia on Monday jailed for over three years an owner of the nation's most popular television station critical of the government, further raising concerns over media freedom in the country.

Nika Gvaramia, an anchor and owner of the pro-opposition Mtavari TV, was found guilty of harming financial interests of a television station he had earlier run, a judge of the Tbilisi city court said.

He was sentenced to three and a half years behind bars.

Gvaramia has also been a lawyer of Georgia's ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili who is serving a six-year jail term for abuse of power —a conviction he has denounced as politically motivated.

Gvaramia has said his case was aimed at silencing critical media.

His lawyer Dito Sadzaglishvili said the verdict was illegal, adding that "Gvaramia was taken into political captivity."

"Political repression is underway in Georgia," he told AFP. "In democratic countries, journalists are not jailed for their dissenting views."

Transparency International said in a statement the verdict was "a continuation of a campaign of political persecution the government" has carried out "against opponents for years".

"The use of judiciary for intimidation and media censorship sends a dangerous message to other critical media outlets."

Georgia's rights ombudsperson, Nino Lomjaria, said on Sunday her office had studied Gvaramia's case and found no proof of wrongdoing.

Georgia's prominent TV personalities and managers have long accused the ruling Georgian Dream party's government of using the judiciary to stifle independent voices.

Rights groups have also expressed concern over media freedom in Georgia, saying managers and owners of nearly all independent TV stations critical of the Georgian government are under investigation.

Georgia's ranking in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media freedom index dropped from 60th in 2021 to 89th place this year.

In October 2015, Gvaramia said a government middleman had threatened to release secretly-recorded videos showing what he described as his "private life" in an attempt to force him to quit journalism.

In 2007-2009, he held several government posts in Saakashvili's Cabinet, overseeing his anti-corruption crusade.

Independent media in Georgia has often had fraught relations with authorities since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.