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Armenian 'Oligarchs' Sue Opposition Daily

"Haykakan zhamanak" publisher Anna Hakobian (right) called the move "yet another step against the newspaper."
"Haykakan zhamanak" publisher Anna Hakobian (right) called the move "yet another step against the newspaper."
YEREVAN -- Three of Armenia's wealthiest businessmen have filed a libel lawsuit against a pro-opposition daily that implicated them in criminal activity in Russia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The legal action stems from a report published by the daily newspaper "Haykakan zhamanak" in October and based on claims made by Smbat Karakhanian, a Moscow-based Armenian opposition figure.

Karakhanian was quoted by the daily as alleging that Russian authorities suspect eight senior Armenian officials -- including President Serzh Sarkisian -- and government-connected businessmen of involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering, and other serious crimes committed in Russia.

Russian officials have not confirmed the allegations.

Three of the implicated "oligarchs" -- Samvel Aleksanian, Ruben Hayrapetian, and Levon Sargsian -- are now seeking a combined 7.5 million drams ($20,500) in damages for what they say are false claims amounting to defamation of character.

"After we published that report they demanded a refutation," said "Haykakan zhamanak" publisher Anna Hakobian.

"In a manner defined by law, our editor in chief, Nikol Pashinian, replied to them with a letter that presented the grounds on which the refutation will not be published," she said.

"The grounds were that our source is confirming that such a conversation took place and that these names do figure [in Russian criminal cases]," Hakobian told RFE/RL.

Pashinian pointed to a follow-up interview with Karakhanian that appeared in the newspaper later in October.

None of the plaintiffs could be reached for comment.

All three of the men -- who hold seats in Armenia's parliament -- have long faced opposition media allegations of illegal activity, electoral fraud, and violence against government critics.

Armenia's best-selling daily, "Haykakan zhamanak" is known for its hard-hitting coverage of successive governments and strong support for the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK).

Chief editor Pashinian was one of the main speakers at antigovernment rallies staged by HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrossian following the controversial February 2008 presidential election.

Pashinian is currently serving a disputed prison sentence for his alleged role in deadly postelection violence in Yerevan.

The newspaper 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, had provoked a drunken brawl in the United Arab Emirates.

"This is yet another step against the newspaper, the instruments of which are now oligarchs," Hakobian said, commenting on the latest libel suit.

"If some people think they can make 'Haykakan zhamanak' cave in by initiating such a lawsuit against the newspaper and turning oligarchs against us.... I can guarantee that they won't achieve anything."