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Karabakh Regime Jails Troublesome Journalist

Armenian editors are mounting a concerted protest against the Nagorny Karabakh authorities after a Stepanakert journalist was jailed for libel last week
By Mark Grigorian

Four Yerevan daily newspapers have reprinted a controversial article attacking the prime-minister of Nagorny Karabakh which has landed its author in jail.

Stepanakert journalist Vahram Aghajanian was sentenced to a year's imprisonment on April 12 for libelling Prime Minister Anushavan Danielian in a report which appeared in the Tasnerord Nahang ("Tenth Province") newspaper last December.

But, on Friday, four Armenian editors republished the story as a mark of protest, explaining in a postscript that they were ready to take full responsibility for their actions. Reports from Stepanakert indicate that no Yerevan newspapers were on sale in local kiosks that day.

The move marks the beginning of a concerted campaign launched by Armenian journalists in support of Aghajanian, who was well known for his stinging criticisms of Karabakh's de facto regime.

Next week, members of the Yerevan press corps are expected to stage a demonstration outside the Nagorny Karabakh representative office in Yerevan while a delegation is set to travel to Stepanakert later this month for an appeal hearing at the Supreme Court.

The case has also provoked an international outcry. Emma Gray, programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in Europe, said, "Journalists should never be jailed for practising their profession. We call on the Nagorny Karabakh authorities to reverse this outrageous decision and release Aghajanian immediately."

Aghajanian was arrested on March 28 in the wake of a sweeping police investigation into the attempted murder of Karabakh's elected president, Arkady Ghukasian.

Although no charges were immediately brought against the reporter, the Stepanakert authorities announced that he would be detained for 10 days in accordance with martial law. At the time, a source inside the foreign ministry insisted that "Aghajanian's arrest is not connected with his professional activities."

More than two weeks later, Aghajanian was put on trial. Prosecutors explained that the libel charges related to a report from the Armenian town of Vanadzor where 30 families had applied to Danielian for permission to settle in a ruined Karabakh village near the Azerbaijani border.

The would-be emigrants said the prime minister had refused them financial support but Danielian claims the article was "a lie" deliberately fabricated to damage his reputation.

Journalists attending the hearing were astonished to see that the defendant was wearing handcuffs and that his head had been shaved - treatment usually reserved for hardened criminals.

Gayaneh Arustamian, a journalist from Noratert ("The New Newspaper"), claims that no warrant had been issued for Aghajanian's arrest and he was therefore technically free at the time of his trial.

Other reporters say the court rode roughshod over the Karabakh criminal code. No exhibits were displayed or witnesses called while dictaphone recordings of the villagers' comments were not accepted as evidence.

The judge also refused a request by Aghajanian's defence lawyer, Benik Minasian, to call Nelli Voskanian, head of the Armenian government's immigration office, to the witness stand. Minasian said the immigration chief had confirmed much of Aghajanian's story in an interview with Yerevan's Yerkrapah newspaper last month.

Many see Aghajanian's arrest as part of a wider campaign by the Nagorny Karabakh government to crack down on its opponents.

Over 30 people were arrested following the attack on President Ghukasian. The enclave's former defence minister, General Samvel Babayan, has since been charged with masterminding the assassination plot which left Ghukasian badly wounded.

Other Karabakh press sources also complained of a government backlash. For two days after the shooting, the telephones of several opposition journalists were cut off. And Satik Seyranian, a reporter for Aravot, who had interviewed Ghukasian minutes before the shooting, was detained at the interior ministry in Stepanakert for more than 24 hours.

Vahram Aghajanian has long been a thorn in the side of the Karabakh authorities and has already been arrested on several occasions. He is employed by Tasnerord Nahang which is thought to be controlled by Babayan and his Union for Constitutional Rights.

Mark Grigorian is IWPR's project editor in Yerevan

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