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WPFC condemns seven-year prison sentence against leading journalist

(WPFC/IFEX) - Washington, USA, Jan. 19, 2010 - The World Press Freedom Committee - an organization representing 45 press freedom groups from throughout the world - condemns the seven-year prison sentence handed down today against Armenian journalist Nikol Pashinyan, editor-in-chief of the country's leading newspaper, Haykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Times), who was arrested on July 1 after he voluntarily came out of hiding.

Mr. Pashinyan was accused of serious crimes, including inciting mass disorder and assaulting a public official. But the truth is he was just exercising his right to free expression during a peaceful political rally on March 1 and 2, 2008, which ended up being brutally repressed by riot police. The bloody incident left ten people dead.

A 2008 US State Department report on human rights concluded that, "some of the deaths may have occurred from purposeful arbitrary killing, misuse of crowd control equipment (. . .) or some combination of these factors." The report goes on to conclude that no investigations were conducted into the behavior of the security forces during the incident.

Mr. Pashinyan, whose writings had been very critical of the government, went into hiding after that fateful day and continued writing for his newspaper. After the Armenian Parliament passed a resolution of amnesty for all those implicated in the March 1 incident, he decided to come out of hiding only to be immediately arrested and taken to a former KGB prison.

The arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing of Mr. Pashinyan defy the amnesty resolution and a resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which reminded the Armenian authorities that "the amnesty will also apply to those persons charged in relation to the events of 1 and 2 March 2008." The PACE resolution also urged the Armenian authorities to allow those charged in relation with that incident to remain free during the duration of their legal proceedings.

Arresting a journalist because of reasons directly or indirectly related to his professional activity is a serious attack not only on his fundamental human rights, including press freedom, but also on his audience, who are deprived of important information about issues of public interest. By sentencing him to seven years in prison, his audience is also held hostage to an arbitrary decision that violates fundamental democratic principles.

The harassment and illegal detention of members of the media represent grave violations of fundamental human rights, postulates enshrined not only in the Armenian Constitution but also in international covenants, such as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The conviction and imprisonment of Mr. Pashinyan constitute an attack on his fundamental human rights and, should he decide to appeal his sentence, the court that rules on the appeal should declare his sentence null and void.

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