By Karine Kalantarian
The editor of an Armenian newspaper critical of the government pleaded guilty to the accusations of draft evasion on Friday as he went on trial almost two months after his controversial arrest.
State prosecutors say Arman Babajanian of the “Zhamanak Yerevan” newspaper stole and forged in 2002 legal documents belonging to the family of a former friend living in the United States to illegally avoid compulsory military service in Armenia. According to their indictment read out in a Yerevan district court, the documents included the marriage certificate of Vahe Abovian and his wife Armine as well as the birth certificates of their two children.
Under Armenian law, young men under the age of 27 who have at least two children are exempt from the two-year military duty. Babajanian, 30, studied at an Armenian religious seminary and had his service deferred until 2001 before moving to California in 1998.
“I knew that once my deferment expires I will be wanted [by military and law-enforcement] authorities and unable to return to and work in Armenia,” he told the court. “So I had to resort to that step.”
But while admitting to the forgery charge, Babajanian insisted that he did not steal the documents from the Abovians. He claimed that the latter willingly provided them to him.
Babajanian, who is facing up to five years in prison, set up and began publishing his paper in the Los Angeles area, which is home to a sizable Armenian community, in 2003. He hired staff and launched its publication in Armenia just weeks before being arrested by law-enforcement officers in his office.
In a subsequent statement released from his prison cell, Babajanian claimed that the case against him is aimed at muzzling an “independent and incorruptible media outlet supporting the removal of the illegal regime and the establishment of a legitimate government in Armenia.”
The editors of Armenia’s leading newspapers have likewise denounced the case as politically motivated and demanded that their colleague be set free pending trial. The prosecutors rejected the demand, saying that it is a normal practice to keep individuals accused of draft evasion in Armenia in pre-trial detention.