The case stems from a “Haykakan Zhamanak” article published in October last year. It was 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 -- sued “Haykakan Zhamanak” last January after it refused to run a retraction of what they say are false claims amounting to defamation of character. In a joint lawsuit, each of them demanded 2.5 million drams in moral damages.
In a February ruling, a district court in Yerevan backed their demands, while lowering the amount of fines sought by them. Armenian’s Court of Appeal upheld the ruling afterwards, leading “Haykakan Zhamanak” to appeal to the higher Court of Cassation.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Nikol Pashinian, the newspaper’s outspoken editor, condemned as illegal the court’s refusal to even open hearings on the appeal. He claimed that the decision was “dictated by the ruling oligarchy.”
Pashinian, who is also a prominent member of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), said his paper will struggle to pay the 6 million-dram compensation.
“Haykakan Zhamanak,” which boasts the highest daily circulation in the country, 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.
Its legal battle with the three influential tycoons came amid an upsurge in libel cases against media outlets critical of the current and previous governments. That followed the passage of controversial amendments to Armenian defamation legislation in April 2010. The amendments decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences.