By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - A court in Georgia on Tuesday ordered a change of owner at the ex-Soviet republic's biggest independent TV station, Rustavi 2, in what the broadcaster called an attempt to silence its criticism of the government.
Kibar Khalvashi, who was a co-owner in 2004-2006, got back his controlling stake in the station, one of the most popular in the country. He said he had been coerced into selling Rustavi 2 by former government officials, including former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
The broadcaster's lawyers said that the verdict would be appealed. "It's a totally illegal decision ... This case is not just against Rustavi 2, it's against freedom of speech in Georgia," the company's lawyer, Tamta Muradashvili, said after the verdict was announced.
A court ordered the seizure of Rustavi 2's property in August and later a seizure of shares in the company that owns Rustavi 2, which government officials have often accused of bias.
The station's managers say Khalvashi's lawsuit and the court's decisions were politically motivated and accused the government of being behind Khalvashi's bid.
Opposition politicians and many independent experts say the process is an attempt to silence an independent media in the country of 3.7 million. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) voiced concern over the ownership dispute last month.
Government officials deny any involvement in this case.
Hundreds of viewers and supporters of Rustavi 2 rallied during the hearings outside the Tbilisi city court building and the broadcaster's studio building in a gesture of support.
On Monday, Georgia's Constitutional Court ordered a temporary suspension of a rule that court verdicts must be immediately enforced, even if they are appealed. Because of this, Khalvashi cannot ask the judge to let him take back his controlling stake in Rustavi 2 right away.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)