Armenian editor jailed without bail; political motives cited

New York, July 7, 2006 — The editor of an opposition daily has been jailed in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, for more than two weeks without bail. Arman Babadzhanian, editor-in-chief of Zhamanak Yerevan (Yerevan Times), faces up to five years in prison for allegedly forging documents to avoid military service, but the Committee to Protect Journalists and others are concerned that the charge was prompted by his newspaper’s critical reporting on government conduct.

Babadzhanian was arrested June 26, just days after the Armenian-language newspaper published an article questioning the independence of the prosecutor general’s office, said Seda Muradian of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which has followed the case closely. Authorities allege that forgeries occurred in 2002, but they did not explain the delay in pressing charges.

Press reports said the prosecutor general summoned Babadzhanian for questioning as a witness in a criminal case but jailed him instead on the forgery charge. News reports said that the editor allegedly confessed to forging documents to avoid the draft, but press freedom and human rights groups are questioning the prosecutors’ motives.

Babadzhanian was being held today in the Nabarashen pretrial detention center in Yerevan, according to the Yerevan Press Club. His lawyer unsuccessfully sought Babadzhanian’s release from preliminary detention while the case was pending. CPJ sources said that Babadzhanian could remain imprisoned without bail for weeks before the case proceeds.

Muradian, Armenia country director for IWPR, said the prosecutor’s refusal to grant Babadzhanian preliminary release on bail is very unusual in this type of case. “Authorities are treating Babadzhanian as a dangerous criminal,” Muradian told CPJ.

On Wednesday, the Yerevan Press Club, Internews Armenia, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, and other local press freedom groups sent a letter to the prosecutor general’s office seeking Babadzhanian’s release on bail. The groups also challenged the validity of Babadzhanian’s purported confession. Also on Wednesday, editors of seven Armenian independent and opposition newspapers issued a statement saying Babadzhanian’s arrest was intended to intimidate the press.

“We are very concerned that the criminal case against Arman Babadzhanian may be related to his journalism,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said today. “We call on Armenian authorities to release him pending trial and make their evidence against him public.”

Babadzhanian’s colleagues from Zhamanak Yerevan staged protests in front of the prosecutor general’s office for three days after their editor was arrested, saying that the case is politically motivated and connected to the paper’s critical editorial stance, according to press reports.

Armenian independent press has come under pressure in recent years. The independent television station A1+ has been refused a broadcast license 11 times since it was taken off the air in 2002. In April 2005, legislation restricting press coverage of terrorism was adopted. Retaliatory assaults against journalists continue, especially in the provinces, and officials do little to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators, CPJ research shows.