The Rest of the Story

Hal Piper

October 30, 1990|By Hal Piper

ZVIAD GAMSAKHURDIYA'S path crossed mine 12 years ago, though we never met. At the time I was The Sun's Moscow correspondent and he was in jail, victim of a Soviet crackdown on nationalist dissent. With another reporter I planned a trip to Georgia, a mountainous land at the eastern end of the Black Sea, said to be the Colchis of ancient myth, where Jason and the Argonauts sailed in quest of the Golden Fleece.

Mr. Gamsakhurdiya had been in pretrial detention for 16 months, barred from receiving visits from anyone but his lawyer. But the night before I flew to Georgia, he turned up on the evening television news, confessing to the crime of ''anti-Soviet agitation'' and apologizing for having said Georgians were oppressed by Russians. In view of his repentance, the TV announcer explained, Mr. Gamsakhurdiya would get off with a light sentence, three years' imprisonment.

This was remarkable news. Though I had never met Mr. Gamsakhurdiya, other American correspondents described him as a man with a fanatic's gleam. He had called publicly for support from the U.S. Air Force in a war of Georgian liberation. At the same time, he had showed off what appeared to be a KGB report, stamped ''secret,'' detailing acts of nationalist terror in Georgia -- indicating that he had friends in important places. Joe Murray's description in the accompanying story is completely consistent with the Zviad Gamsakhurdiya American newsmen knew in 1978.

It was utterly incredible that this man, of his own volition, meekly copped a plea -- as if the Black Panther Bobby Seale announced that come to think of it, there really isn't any racism in the United States, or the peacenik Father Berrigan explained that prison had given him time for considered reflection, and it occurs to him that nuclear deterrence makes a lot of sense.

As soon as we reached Tbilisi, my colleague, Craig Whitney of the New York Times, and I looked up Mr. Gamsakhurdiya's wife and asked what she made of her husband's apparent confession.

She had visited him after the confession, she told us, and he had said that he had given no such confession. He did not know how his jailers had made such a tape, she quoted him; either they had drugged him or they had assembled a montage from snippets of phrases he might have uttered over months of taped interrogations. In any event, he had not done a deal, and he intended to resume his nationalist activities as soon as he had served out his sentence.

Mr. Whitney and I decided not to touch the suggestions of drugging or a doctored tape. Those were serious charges for which we had no substantiation whatsoever. But we did report that ''sources close to'' Mr. Gamsakhurdiya said that the dissident had repudiated the confession. Since we were almost sure we had been followed to her apartment, it would be obvious who the ''sources'' were, but Mrs. Gamsakhurdiya assured us that so long as we did not print her name, she could stonewall the KGB.

We filed our stories and continued our trip. Several weeks later a process server showed up at my apartment in Moscow. I was summoned to appear in Moscow City Court as a defendant in case V-213. Craig Whitney got an identical summons. A defendant in a Soviet court? What was this all about?

It turned out we were being sued for slander by the Soviet state TV authority. Our stories had cast doubt on the veracity of the TV reporting of Mr. Gamsakhurdiya's confession, thereby injuring the reputation and credibility of Soviet TV.

Thus began my 15 minutes of Warholian fame. That was a summer of tension in Soviet-American relations. Two Soviet U.N. aides had been arrested in New Jersey and were to be tried for espionage. In retaliation a U.S. businessman was grabbed off the street and charged with currency speculation. And now two reporters were charged with slander. It looked as though Moscow was stockpiling hostages for a tit-for-tat game.

Mr. Whitney and I were interviewed by the big networks and newsweeklies; editorials were written; prayers were said. We got mail from long-lost high school acquaintances. President Carter's national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said Mr. Whitney and I should hang tough.

Americans who attended my trial tell me it was a great show. Mr. Whitney and I boycotted it. If the authorities were going to this much trouble to discredit us, there seemed no point in pretending that we were getting our day in court.

There was testimony that we had demonstrated a visceral anti- Soviet bias and a propensity to commit slander. In my case this evidence was a wiseacre letter I wrote to a storage company, trying to get them to release my goods and stop running up my bill.

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