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Comfy Prison Pic Sparks Outrage In Armenia

Editor Artyom Khachatrian (right) during his visit to murderer's row (photo courtesy of "Haykakan Zhamanak)

Editor Artyom Khachatrian (right) during his visit to murderer's row (photo courtesy of "Haykakan Zhamanak)

Armenia's Justice Ministry has ordered an inquiry after a photo emerged of pro-government newspaper editor meeting under seemingly comfy prison conditions with three convicted murderers.

The front-page photo in the opposition daily "Haykakan Zhamanak" shows editor Artyom Khachatrian of the daily newspaper "Azatamtutyun" and his aide drinking coffee and soft drinks with two men serving life sentences in Yerevan's prison for the killings in the Armenian parliament 10 years ago.

Derenik Bejanian and Eduard Grigorian were among the gunmen who burst into parliament in October 1999, killing speaker Karen Demirchian, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, and six other politicians.

They share a prison cell with Arsen Ardzruni, a former member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation who was convicted of being a member of a death squad that allegedly operated in the early 1990s.

"Haykakan Zhamanak" called the photograph scandalous, saying it proves a serious breach of prison regulations.

Representatives of two main pro-government parties questioned the authenticity of the photograph.

But Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party, said he will be "furious" if it turns out to be real. Sahakian called the photo "a disgrace" that will create a problem for state security.

Lana Mshetsian, a Justice Ministry spokeswoman, told RFE/RL that the picture will be examined in order to determine whether prison rules regulating visits to inmates were violated.

Meanwhile, Khachatrian confirmed he visited the prison on October 5. He told RFE/RL that the photo was stolen from his office and he knows who stole it. He was quick to add that he doesn't see anything wrong with the picture, saying the law allows journalists to visit prisoners in their cell with their consent.

"Haykakan Zhamanak" claims that under prison rules nobody is allowed to meet with more than one prisoner at a time. Khachatrian said prison officials "saved time" by letting him visit with three prisoners at the same time.

"Azatamtutyun" is known for its criticism of the opposition, which claims that the newspaper is funded by people close to Sarkisian.

Khachatrian, once a harsh critic of Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharian, is also known as the organizer of a protest by a small group of government supporters outside opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian's house during the 2008 presidential race.

-- RFE/RL's Armenian Service

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