By Hovannes Shoghikian
An Armenian appeals court upheld on Wednesday the controversial pre-trial detention of the editor of an independent newspaper critical of the government who is facing up to five years in prison for alleged draft evasion.
The panel of three judges rejected a petition to overturn a lower court ruling that allowed state prosecutors to keep Arman Babajanian of the “Zhamanak Yerevan” newspaper under a two-month pre-trial arrest.
Babajanian’s lawyer, Robert Grigorian, argued that Armenia’s criminal code allows for his client’s release on bail and assured the judges that the editor would not obstruct the investigation or flee the country. “I believe there were sufficient grounds for the court to accept our petition,” he said after the announcement of the verdict.
The petition was also signed by several members of the Armenian parliament who offered to pay for the bail and guarantee Babajanian’s “proper behavior” before and during the trial. Grigorian said he will likely appeal to the Court of Cassation, the highest body of criminal justice in Armenia.
Babajanian, 30, was detained in his office June 26 and charged with forging personal documents to avoid compulsory military service in 2002. Prosecutors investigating the case say he confessed to the charges before being remanded in a two-month pre-trial custody by a court in Yerevan. In a subsequent written statement, Babajanian claimed to be “persecuted” by the Armenian authorities for his professional activities but did not specify whether he did plead guilty to the accusations.
In a joint statement last week, the editors of Armenia’s leading newspapers suggested that the case is politically motivated and demanded that their colleague be set free at least until the end of his trial. Similar demands were voiced by six non-governmental organizations involved in human rights and press freedom advocacy.
Also expressing concern about Babajanian’s prosecution was the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “We are very concerned that the criminal case against Arman Babajanian may be related to his journalism,” its executive director, Joel Simon, said in a statement on Friday. “We call on Armenian authorities to release him pending trial and make their evidence against him public.”