NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Opposition journalist released with suspended sentence

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New York, May 1, 2000 — A journalist who writes for an opposition newspaper in the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was released from prison April 27, after an appeals court suspended his one-year sentence. A panel of the Nagorno-Karabakh Supreme Court ruled that Vahram Aghajanian would not be returned to jail unless he commits further crimes over the next two years.

Aghajanian was arrested on March 28. While he was not formally charged, authorities accused him of slandering the self-proclaimed prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave in south-eastern Azerbaijan, in an article published last November in the opposition weekly Tasnerord Nahang.

Since Aghajanian’s imprisonment, the newspaper has suspended publication indefinitely. Local observers have cited financial problems and political pressure as likely reasons for the paper’s suspension.

The journalist was held without charge for two weeks after his arrest, and then handed a one-year sentence for defamation of character, the first of its kind passed by a Nagorno-Karabakh court. Aghajanian’s lawyer, Beniamin Minamin, has vowed to appeal the ruling on the grounds that it holds his client hostage to prosecutors, and restricts his professional freedom.

Aghajanian is said to be at home and running a high temperature. The journalist’s colleagues report that he plans to rest for a month before resuming his professional work. Aside from his work with Tasnerord Nahang, Aghajanian is the Nagorno-Karabakh correspondent for the Armenian newspaper Iravunk and a contributor to the U.K.-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

“While we are pleased that Vahram Aghajanian is out of prison, we believe that no journalist should ever be jailed for what he writes,” said Emma Gray, CPJ’s Europe program coordinator. “We urge Nagorno-Karabakh authorities to bring their practices in line with international standards for a free press.”

As a result of hostilities, the Azerbaijani government is presently unable to exercise control over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. CPJ addresses Nagorno-Karabakh authorities as those with de facto control (and responsibility) over the area, and not as a recognition of their sovereign claim.