The young editor of an Armenian newspaper critical of the government was found guilty of illegally avoiding military service and sentenced to four years in prison by a Yerevan court on Friday.
The court backed prosecutors’ claim that Arman Babajanian of “Zhamanak Yerevan” used fake documents to win exemption from the two-year compulsory duty in 2002. But the presiding judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, dismissed as “unfounded” a separate accusation that Babajanian stole the documents from an Armenian couple based in California.
Still, the jail sentence is only six months shorter than the one demanded by the prosecutors. It is also quite harsh for individuals convicted of draft evasion in Armenia. They usually get between two and three years in jail. Babajanian’s defense counsel is therefore likely to appeal against the verdict.
The 30-year-old editor looked resigned to going to prison as he delivered his final court remarks two hours before the announcement of the ruling. “Whether I will be in jail or at large, my homeland Armenia will remain my dearest place,” he said. “It looks as though I have to lose liberty in order to win back my right to again live in the homeland. If this is so, I will pay the price and duly accept any prison sentence set by the court.”
Babajanian added that he resorted to fraud after failing to extend the deferment of his military service and study in a U.S. university. He claimed that military authorities repeatedly rejected medical documents testifying to his poor health.
Under Armenian law, virtually all young men aged between 18 and 27 must serve in the armed forces for two years. Those who are admitted to state universities before coming of age have to be drafted after finishing their studies.
Babajanian used to study in an Armenian religious seminary and had his service deferred until 2001 before moving to the United States in 1998. He was arrested in June just weeks after returning to Armenia and starting to publish the newspaper in Armenia. In a subsequent statement released from his prison cell, he accused the authorities of trying to muzzle an “independent and incorruptible media outlet supporting the removal of the illegal regime and the establishment of a legitimate government in Armenia.”
The “Zhamanak Yerevan” staff say Babajanian would not have been prosecuted had his paper supported the government, a claim dismissed by the prosecutors.