TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered its biggest independent TV station, Rustavi 2, returned to its former co-owner, in a move critics at home and abroad called an attempt to silence the media.
Hundreds of viewers, opposition politicians and supporters rallied outside the court and moved to the broadcaster's studio building in a gesture of support after the ruling was announced.
The TV station has been fighting court battles since August 2015 when a lower court found in favor of former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi and ordered his controlling stake returned to him.
Thursday's judgment confirmed that ruling.
Government officials have accused the popular TV station of bias, while critics fear Khalvashi - a close supporter of the ruling Georgian Dream party - will silence the only strong media voice critical of the government in Georgia.
The U.S. Embassy said it viewed with concern a decision "which could effectively limit the access of opposition voices to Georgian broadcast media."
"A pluralistic media environment is essential for Georgia's democratic growth and Euro-Atlantic aspirations," it said in a statement.
The OSCE media representative on media freedom, Dunja Mijatovic was also critical. "Disappointing move and huge blow to media pluralism in Georgia," she tweeted.
Khalvashi, co-owner of Rustavi 2 from 2004 to 2006, says he was forced to give up his controlling stake under the former government of former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili's party in an election in 2012 and strengthened its hold on power in another ballot in October 2016.
The broadcaster's director general condemned Thursday's decision, in which government officials have denied involvement, as illegal and politically motivated.
"We have witnessed defeat of democracy, defeat of justice and defeat of freedom of speech," Nika Gvaramia said during a live talk-show at Rustavi 2.
"You've deprived the Georgian people of Rustavi 2, but we will be defending freedom of speech until the end," Diana Jojua, one of the broadcaster's anchors, said.
Gvaramia invited Khalvashi to sell Rustavi 2 to its current management team after the new owner said he did not rule out selling the broadcaster in the future.
"Transfer 100 percent of Rustavi 2 to these people and we will satisfy your commercial interest," Gvaramia said in a televised address.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence and John Stonestreet)