YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–A court in Yerevan on Monday ordered the pro-opposition daily Armenian Times (Haykakan Zhamanak) to pay three government-connected businessmen 6 million drams ($16,500) in damages and retract its allegations that they engaged in criminal activity in Russia.
The case stems from a report published by “Haykakan Zhamanak” last October. 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 month 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.
Karine Petrosian, the judge in the case, backed their demands, while lowering the amount of fines sought by them. She said the newspaper’s claims are slanderous and unsubstantiated.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Anahit Sardarian, welcomed the ruling, saying that “Haykakan Zhamanak” failed to come up with any factual evidence during the court hearings. By contrast, she said, the plaintiffs presented the court with a statement by Russian prosecutors saying that her clients were never suspected of any criminal activity in Russia.
But Hayk Gevorgian, the paper’s managing editor, denounced the verdict as unfair and politically motivated. He insisted that “Haykakan Zhamanak” should not have been held accountable for Karakhanian’s claim and spoke of a “dangerous precedent” set for the Armenian media.
“From now on, everyone will be able to sue every media outlet for publishing information attributed to someone,” Gevorgian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. The newspaper will therefore appeal the verdict, he said.
“Haykakan Zhamanak,” which is Armenia’s best-selling daily, 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.
Gevorgian claimed that such lawsuits are aimed at financially strangling the paper. “They [the authorities] will see that only in their dreams,” he said.