Journalist given 15 years for espionage in Transdniester

New York, December 17, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned the 15-year prison sentence given to independent journalist Ernest Vardanian, who has been held on falsified espionage charges in the unrecognized separatist Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) since April. The PMR is commonly known as Transdniester, and broke away from Moldova proper in 1990.

In a closed hearing on Thursday, the Supreme Court of PMR convicted Vardanian of high treason and ordered him transferred to a strict-regime penal colony, regional and international press reported. It was unclear whether Vardanian’s PMR-appointed lawyer would appeal the verdict.

Aleksandru Postica, a lawyer representing Vardanian’s family in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, was not allowed to represent the journalist in the PMR court, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Irina Vardanian, the journalist’s wife, told Europa Libera (the Moldova service of RFE/RL) that the PMR- appointed lawyer refused to meet with her and ignored her calls. “I learned about the verdict when some journalists called to interview me,” she said.

Prior to his arrest in April, Vardanian, 30, worked as a staff reporter and political analyst for the Chisinau-based newspaper Puls, freelanced for the Russian Internet news agency Novy Region, and occasionally contributed to Europa Libera. Puls Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Kavruk told Deutsche Welle in April that the PMR’s Ministry of State Security (MGB) had been pressuring Vardanian to stop working for Chisinau media outlets.

“Moldovan authorities must step up their efforts for the release of Ernest Vardanian,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The charges are bogus. Vardanian should be freed immediately.”

Irina Vardanian told Europa Libera she was not informed of any of the trial dates, and she was not allowed in the court. Lawyer Postica told RFE/RL that the “case is political and the so-called minister of justice in Tiraspol [the regional capital of Transdniester] has indicated very clearly that he wants Vardanian to be sentenced.”

A group of armed MGB agents arrested Vardanian at his home in Tiraspol and placed him in an agency detention facility, according to press reports and CPJ interviews. MGB agents searched the journalist’s home and confiscated computers, recording equipment and reporter’s notebooks, as well as the family’s bank and credit cards. The MGB denied Vardanian access to a lawyer after his arrest, according to press reports.

CPJ has advocated on Vardanian’s behalf, and called on Moldovan authorities to secure his release. On December 9, Sergiu Luca, first secretary at the Embassy of Moldova in the United States, responded to CPJ’s request for information on the status of Moldova’s efforts to gain Vardanian’s release, saying: “Official authorities have no access in the region. Also, the Moldovan government does not recognize any ‘decision’ taken by the unconstitutional so-called courts in the region A series of diplomatic efforts and steps have been undertaken to release our citizen.”