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Armenian Opposition Journalist Jailed Over Postelection Protests

Nikol Pashinian speaks to opposition supporters.
Nikol Pashinian speaks to opposition supporters.
A court in Yerevan has sentenced Nikol Pashinian, a leading opposition journalist, to seven years in jail on charges of organizing the mass unrest that followed the February 2008 presidential election.

Pashinian, the outspoken editor in chief of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, was one of the most influential and passionate speakers at the postelection demonstrations.

During the protests, supporters of defeated opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian came out in the streets to protest what they said was an election rigged in favor of the winner, Serzh Sarkisian.

Within days, violence erupted between protesters and security forces. The clashes left ten people dead when police tried to disperse the demonstrators, and authorities imposed a three-week state of emergency in Yerevan and a government ban on independent reporting.

A Yerevan court today found Pashinian guilty of organizing “mass riots” and sentenced him to seven years in jail.

About a hundred opposition supporters gathered outside the courthouse in a show of solidarity. They greeted the verdict with shouts of "Shame!" and there were some brief scuffles with police.

Tougher Sentence

The court cleared Pashinian of a separate charge of assaulting a police officer during an earlier opposition demonstration in October 2007.

State prosecutors had demanded last month prison sentences of six and two years respectively for the two alleged crimes.

Today's court ruling means that Pashinian received an even tougher punishment for the riot charge.

"Usually, the courts' verdicts are for at least one year less than the sentence demanded by prosecutors,” Lusine Sahakian, one of Pashinian's lawyers, told RFE/RL. “But in this case, it was the exact opposite. Of course, we weren't expecting a just decision from this court, because for a long time, we haven't had just verdicts here in Armenia."

The sentence disqualifies Pashinian from a general amnesty that was declared by the Armenian authorities in June. The amnesty led to the release of dozens of other opposition members arrested in the aftermath of the election.

The main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) condemned the ruling as politically motivated.

Levon Zurabian, a leading member of the opposition alliance, said: "We know that this verdict was ordered personally by [President] Serzh Sarkisian, but those who carry out his orders are executioners and they have to understand that perfectly. And they should know they are going to be held accountable for this.”

On January 10, Pashinian -- despite being under arrest and on trial -- stood as an opposition candidate in a parliamentary by-election.

He placed second with 37 percent of the vote.

The HAK has denounced the vote, won by a progovernment candidate, as fraudulent.