Three of Armenia’s wealthiest government-connected businessmen have filed a libel lawsuit against a pro-opposition daily that implicated them in criminal activity in Russia, it emerged on Tuesday.
The legal action stems from a report that was published by the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily in October and based on claims made by Smbat Karakhanian, a Moscow-based Armenian opposition figure.
Karakhanian was quoted as alleging that Russian authorities suspect eight senior Armenian officials and businessmen, including President Serzh Sarkisian, of involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering and other grave crimes committed in Russia. Russian officials never confirmed that.
Three of the implicated “oligarchs” -- Samvel Aleksanian, Ruben Hayrapetian and Levon Sargsian -- are now seeking a combined 7.5 million drams ($20,500) in compensatory damagers for what they say are false claims amounting to defamation of character.
“After we published that report they demanded a refutation,” said Anna Hakobian, the “Haykakan Zhamanak” publisher. “In a manner defined by law, our editor-in-chief Nikol Pashinian replied to them with a letter that presented the grounds on which the refutation will not be published.”
“The grounds were that our source is confirming that such a conversation took place and that these names do figure [in Russian criminal cases,]” Hakobian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. He pointed to a follow-up interview with Karakhanian that appeared in the paper later in October.
None of the plaintiffs could be reached for comment. All three men holding seats in Armenia’s parliament have long faced opposition media allegations of illegal activity, electoral fraud and violence against government critics. Sargsian is particularly notorious for reportedly violent conduct.
Armenia’s best selling daily, “Haykakan Zhamanak” is known for its hard-hitting coverage of successive governments and strong support for the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). Its editor, Nikol Pashinian, was one of the main speakers at anti-government rallies staged by HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrosian following the February 2008 presidential election. Pashinian is currently serving a highly controversial prison sentence for his alleged role in deadly post-election violence in Yerevan.
The paper was already taken to court and fined 3.6 million drams in late 2009 for alleging that former President Robert Kocharian’s younger son, Levon, provoked a drunken brawl in the United Arab Emirates.
“This is yet another step against the newspaper, the instruments of which are now oligarchs,” Hakobian said, commenting on the latest libel suit. “If some people think they can make ‘Haykakan Zhamanak’ cave in by initiating such a lawsuit against the newspaper and turning oligarchs against us … I can guarantee that they won’t achieve anything.”