By Ruzanna Stepanian
An Armenian appeals court on Friday shortened by six months the four-year imprisonment of the editor of a pro-opposition newspaper who was convicted of illegally dodging compulsory military service.
Ignoring protests from defense lawyers and press freedom watchdogs, the Court of Appeals essentially upheld the guilty verdict that was handed down by a Yerevan court of first instance last September.
The latter found substantiated prosecutors’ claims that Arman Babajanian of the “Zhamanak Yerevan” newspapers used forged documents to win exemption from the two-year duty in 2002. But it rejected a separate allegation that he stole the documents from an Armenian couple based in California.
Babajanian has admitted resorting to fraud after failing to extend the deferment of his military service and moving to the United States in 1998. He says he did so after
military authorities unjustly rejected medical documents testifying to his poor health.
The 30-year-old was arrested in June just weeks after returning to Armenia and starting to publish the newspaper in Yerevan. In a subsequent statement released from his prison cell, he accused the authorities of trying to muzzle an “independent and incorruptible media outlet supporting the removal of the illegal regime and the establishment of a legitimate government in Armenia.”
Individuals convicted of draft dodging in Armenia are usually jailed for up to three years. Armenian and international media associations say the prison sentence given to Babajanian is too harsh.
Friday’s court ruling was announced by a panel of three judges in the absence of Babajanian’s two lawyers who protested the court’s refusal to postpone the final hearing until after an official response from an Armenian government commission which has the power to grant draft dodgers amnesty in return for a hefty amount of cash. The practice is regulated by a special law passed by parliament two years ago. Babajanian applied for such amnesty late last year.
One of his attorneys, Zaruhi Postanjian, pledged to lodge more appeals against the conviction as she spoke to RFE/RL later in the day. “We will go to the Court of Cassation, the Constitutional Court, and even the European Court of Human Rights,” she said.