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Freedom of Speech Threatened in Karabakh

Armenian journalists are outraged by the Karabakh government's attempts to silence two local reporters.
By Mark Grigorian

A second journalist has been arrested by the Nagorny Karabakh regime as part of what many believe to be a concerted crackdown on its opponents.

Vardan Taschian, a Lebanese citizen who has been working in Karabakh since 1990, was arrested this week in connection with a bid to assassinate the enclave's elected president, Arkady Ghukasian.

The arrest follows the conviction on libel charges of another Stepanakert journalist, Vahram Aghajanian - well known for his stringing criticism of Karabakh's de facto regime - just days after the murder attempt on March 22, which left Ghukasian badly wounded.

Taschian had been working for the Tasnerod Nahang ("10th Province") newspaper, reportedly financed by Karabakh's former defence minister, Samvel Babayan, who has been charged with masterminding the assassination plot.

Over 30 people have now been arrested in connection with the crime, which, many believe, has given the government a pretext to crackdown on its opponents.

Journalists from a number of Yerevan-based papers have signed an open letter in support of Taschian, who believe his arrest was a misunderstanding, as, they insist, there are no grounds for suspecting him of involvement in case.

The move came as the campaign to free Aghajanian, sentenced to a one-year prison term for slandering Karabakh's prime minister, Anushavan Danelian, was stepped up.

About 100 journalists in Yerevan held a demonstration outside the Karabakh representative office in protest at Aghajanian's conviction. They delivered a petition in support of the reporter, which included protest letters from international journalists associations and human rights groups.

A delegation of journalists from the Armenian capital is set to travel to Stepanakert later this month for an appeal hearing at the Supreme Court.

The campaign to free Aghajanian began last week when four Yerevan daily newspapers reprinted the controversial article that landed him in jail. His arrest and trial have provoked an international outcry. Witnesses said the court rode roughshod over the Karabakh criminal law

In Stepanakert, meanwhile, President Ghukasian appeared to express unease about the recent arrests when he called on Karabakh's law-enforcement agencies to exercise greater restraint and to guard against violating freedom of speech.

The note of concern came in marked contrast to Danelian's reported insistence that Aghajanian's sentence was too lenient, as the journalist has written "more than 10 offensive articles."

Mark Grigorian is IWPR project editor in Yerevan.

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