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Armenian Court Rejects Libel Appeal By Opposition Daily

"Haykakan Zhamanak" editor Nikol Pashinian

"Haykakan Zhamanak" editor Nikol Pashinian

YEREVAN -- Armenia's Court of Cassation has thrown out an appeal by the opposition daily "Haykakan Zhamanak" against a 6 million drams ($16,200) fine imposed on it earlier this year in a defamation case, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The case stems from a "Haykakan Zhamanak" article published in October 2010 that implicated three government-linked businessmen as being involved in criminal activity. 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 information.

Three of the implicated "oligarchs" -- Samvel Aleksanian, Ruben Hayrapetian, and Levon Sarkisian -- sued "Haykakan Zhamanak" in 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 they sought. Armenian's appeals court upheld the ruling, leading "Haykakan Zhamanak" to appeal to the higher Court of Cassation.

Nikol Pashinian, the newspaper's outspoken editor, condemned as illegal the court's refusal to even open hearings on the appeal. He told RFE/RL that the decision was "dictated by the ruling oligarchy."

Pashinian, who is also a prominent member of the main opposition Armenian National Congress, said his paper will struggle to pay the 6 million-dram penalty.

"Haykakan Zhamanak," which boasts the highest daily circulation in the country, was 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.

The daily's legal battle with the three influential tycoons came amid an upsurge in libel cases against media outlets critical of the current and previous governments, which followed the passage of controversial amendments to defamation legislation in April 2010.

The amendments to the law decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offenses.

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