4YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–A court in Yerevan sentenced the editor-in-chief of a local newspaper to one year in jail on Tuesday–convicting him of slander and failure to obey an earlier court order–in a verdict that may lead to the first-ever imprisonment of a journalist in post-Soviet Armenia.
Nikol Pashinian–the editor of daily newspaper "Oragir" (Diary)–was found guilty of insulting a "law-enforcement official carrying out their duties," declining to publish a refutation of "Oragir" reports and slandering two persons. The sentence will take effect in 15 days from its passing–meaning that Pashinian will not go to jail before September 15. He told RFE/RL that he will appeal the verdict in a court of higher instance.
The 23-year-old editor said the verdict is unfair because the judge hearing the case failed to take into consideration his counsel’s argumen’s. Some local observers are doubtful about Pashinian’s eventual imprisonment–considering possible negative reaction in the West. Yerevan expects to gain full membership in the Council of Europe later this year. Armenia’s image abroad had been tarnished by the closure in 1994 of several newspapers affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party–which was banned by the previous leadership.
"Oragir," known for its harsh anti-government rhetoric–was effectively shut down by the authorities in early June after it refused to pay $25,000 in compensatory damages to the trade company Mika-Armenia following a lost court case. The paper previously lost a libel suit brought by National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian–who was alleged to have shady connections with the firm. It declined to run a refutation demanded by the court.
"Oragir" is close to the small political party of the former education minister Ashot Bleyan–who is currently in jail pending a trial on embezzlement charges. The opposition daily restarted publication last month under a new name–"Haykakan Zhamanak" (Armenian Time)–in an attempt to hold off further legal challenges. But its future continued to hang in the balance–with state prosecutors launching criminal proceedings against the defiant editor.
Also incorporated into the criminal case were defamation charges leveled against Pashinian by two persons. A controversial university professor and the wife of a prominent Armenian politician–Artashes Geghamian of the nationalist Right and Accord bloc–were implicated by "Oragir" in corruption and smuggling respectively.
Pashinian argued on Tuesday that all of the accusations made against him are not of criminal character and should have been examined in a civil litigation. His defense counsel–Tigran Janoyan–has said the case poses a serious threat to the freedom of speech in Armenia. Armenian journalists taken to court until now faced civil (as opposed to criminal) challenges.