By Hovannes Shoghikian
Journalists working for an independent Armenian newspaper picketed the Prosecutor-General’s Office on Tuesday to condemn the arrest of their young editor-in-chief accused of draft evasion.
Arman Babajanian of the “Zhamanak Yerevan” newspaper was detained in his office and questioned by prosecutors for several hours on Monday. A statement released by the law-enforcement agency said he confessed “in the presence of his defense attorney” to forging personal documents to dodge compulsory military service in 2002. No further details of the criminal case have been made public so far.
The allegations were rejected as unfounded and politically motivated by “Zhamanak Yerevan” staff that staged a protest outside the prosecutors’ headquarters in downtown Yerevan along with a small group of other reporters, human rights campaigners and opposition activists. They chanted “Shame! Shame!” and carried posters that referred to the 30-year-old editor as a “political prisoner.”
“We don’t believe that he made a confession in the presence of his lawyer because he did not have one,” said Manuk Sukiasian, the paper’s executive director. “He hired a lawyer only today.”
Babajanian’s deputy Liza Chagharian and other colleagues claimed that he is being prosecuted for publishing articles critical of President Robert Kocharian, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and other senior officials. “I insist that his arrest is connected with his journalistic activities,” she said.
The National Press Club, which mainly unites journalists critical of the Armenian government, echoed these claims, saying that the authorities are trying to bully the independent media ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. “The NPC demands that the law-enforcement bodies stick to the letter and spirit of law and do not become a tool in the regime’s hands,” it said in a statement.
Two other, more moderate media associations also expressed concern at Babajanian’s arrest. In a joint open letter, the Yerevan Press Club and the Committee to Support Freedom of Speech urged the Armenian prosecutor-general to name the lawyer who witnessed the editor’s alleged confession.
Babajanian was not formally charged with draft evasion as of Tuesday evening. Under Armenian law, the prosecutors have to press the charges or set him free by Thursday morning.
They rejected on Tuesday the protesters’ demands to release Babajanian pending investigation. A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General’s Office, Sona Truzian, argued that indicted draft dodgers are normally kept in pre-trial custody in Armenia. “In this sense, Arman Babajanian is not an exception to the rule,” she told RFE/RL.
“Zhamanak Yerevan” was set up last year and currently sells several thousand copies in Yerevan and California, which is home to a large Armenian community. Its news reporting has generally been critical of the Armenian authorities.