YEREVAN -- An Armenian court has found the country's leading pro-opposition daily newspaper guilty of libel and ordered it to pay a fine, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
The Yerevan court ruled February 7 that three businessmen were libeled by "Haykakan Zhamanak" and should be paid 6 million drams ($16,500) in damages. It ordered the newspaper to retract allegations the men had engaged in criminal activity in Russia.
The case stems from a report published by "Haykakan Zhamanak" in October in which it based its claims about the businessmen on statements made by Smbat Karakhanian, a Moscow-based Armenian opposition figure.
Karakhanian was quoted as saying Russian authorities suspect eight senior Armenian officials and businessmen, including President Serzh Sarkisian, of involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering, and other crimes committed in Russia.
The implicated businessmen -- Samvel Aleksanian, Ruben Hayrapetian, and Levon Sarkisian -- sued "Haykakan Zhamanak" last month after it refused to run a retraction of what the men say is defamation of character. In a joint lawsuit, each demanded 2.5 million drams in moral damages.
Judge Karine Petrosian ruled in their favor, saying the paper's claims were "slanderous and unsubstantiated."
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Anahit Sardarian, welcomed the ruling, saying that "Haykakan Zhamanak" failed to furnish any factual evidence during the hearings. By contrast, she said, the plaintiffs presented the court with a statement by Russian prosecutors saying her clients had not been suspected of 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" for the media.
"From now on, everyone will be able to sue every media outlet for publishing information attributed to someone else," Gevorgian told RFE/RL. He said the newspaper will appeal.
"Haykakan Zhamanak," Armenia's best-selling daily, was taken to court and fined 3.6 million drams in 2009 for alleging that former President Robert Kocharian's youngest son, Levon, had provoked a drunken brawl in the United Arab Emirates.
Gevorgian said such lawsuits are aimed at strangling the paper. "[The authorities] will see that happen only in their dreams," he said.