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Karabakh Police Seize Journalist

Journalists campaign to secure the release of an opposition journalist detained by the Nagorny Karabakh regime

A Nagorny Karabakh journalist has been arrested and his apartment ransacked in the wake of a massive police investigation into the attempted murder of President Arkady Ghukasian.

The arrest of Vahram Aghajanian - well known for his stinging criticisms of Karabakh's de facto regime -- has provoked howls of protest from media organisations across Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The president of the disputed enclave was wounded in both legs when two gunmen riddled his Mercedes with machine-gun bullets on March 22.

Over 30 people including former minister of defence Samvel Babayan have since been detained in connection with the Stepanakert shooting which many see as a severe blow to ongoing peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Karabakh interior ministry officials burst into Aghajanian's apartment on March 28 and proceeded to ransack the premises, reportedly searching for weapons, drugs and cash. They also rifled through video and audio cassettes as well as newspapers and documents.

Insiders claim that the police officers failed to produce a search warrant before entering the apartment -- a direct violation of Karabakh law.

Aghajanian was then summoned to the Ministry of the Interior buildings in Stepanakert where he is still in custody. His sister was told, "Don't expect him to be released anytime soon."

As yet, no official charge has been brought against the journalist, although sources close to the case say Aghajanian is being questioned over articles he recently published about Anushavan Danielian, the Karabakh prime minister.

Vahram Aghajanian has long been a thorn in the side of the Karabakh regime and has already been arrested on several occasions. He is employed by the Tasnerord Nahang ("Tenth Province") newspaper which is thought to be controlled by Samvel Babayan, commander-in-chief of the Karabakh army.

Tasnerord Nahang was sued for libel in December 1999 over a series of articles criticizing Prime Minister Danielian. A separate case was brought against Aghajanian for libelling government officials.

Aghajanian also writes for Iravunk ("Right"), a Yerevan-based paper which is the official organ of the Union for Constitutional Rights - a party which supports Babayan. On March 24, IWPR published a report by Aghajanian and Mark Grigorian describing the events surrounding the attempt on Ghukasian's life.

Aghajanian is also well known in neighbouring Azerbaijan where he took part in the Support for the Mass Media in the Caucasus project, organised last June in partnership with the Swiss Ministry of Internal Affairs. During his visit to Baku, the journalist published a series of articles in the Azerbaijani newspaper Zerkalo ("Mirror").

Meanwhile, press representatives in Armenia and Azerbaijan have been quick to voice their protest. Yerevan's Haykakan Zhamanak ("Armenian Time") said "the Karabakh authorities decided to take advantage of the uncertain situation and gag any journalists who are not accountable to the authorities."

Azerbaijani journalists are currently mounting a campaign to secure Aghajanian's immediate release. They are calling for a fair investigation and a court hearing attended by fellow journalists and international mediators.

Mark Grigorian and Shahin Rzaev are IWPR Project Editors in Yerevan and Baku respectively.

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