Armenian opposition editor sentenced to four years in prison

New York, September 11, 2006—A district court judge in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, sentenced Arman Babadzhanian, editor of the opposition newspaper Zhamanak Yerevan, to four years in prison on Friday for dodging military service in 2002 by presenting false documents to avoid the obligatory two-year draft, according to local press reports.

Local press freedom defenders said the sentence was unusually harsh for the alleged violation, which typically draws sentences of one to three years. Babadzhanian’s defense will appeal the sentence, the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said.

The 30-year-old editor was arrested on June 26, after being summoned for questioning by the prosecutor general’s office in Yerevan, supposedly as a witness in a criminal case. Babadzhanian has been imprisoned since because authorities denied his release on bail despite protests by his defense lawyer and numerous press freedom organizations. (See related CPJ alert from July 7.)

Babadzhanian pleaded guilty to draft evasion but said that the case against him was designed to silence “an independent and incorruptible media outlet,” RFE/RL reported. While admitting to the charge, he said that authorities had repeatedly rejected medical documents attesting to health problems that could have exempted him from the draft.

Days prior to Babadzhanian’s arrest, Zhamanak Yerevan 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 did not explain why they waited to charge Babadzhanian on a violation that dated to 2002.

“Given the history of politicized prosecution of journalists in Armenia, we are skeptical about the appropriateness of this sentence,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.

Armenia’s opposition and independent media have been 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. Physical assaults against journalists also continue, and CPJ research shows that officials do little to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators.