Journalist of Armenian descent held in Moldova ‘espionage’ case

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Friday May 14, 2010

Ernest Vardanian testifying against himself. PMR government via youtube

Washington - Authorities in the self-governing Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic (PMR) are holding a journalist of Armenian descent on charges of 'spying' for the government of Moldova with which PMR fought a war in 1992.

In May 11 video recording broadcast on PMR state television, and placed on youtube, Ernest Vardanian claimed that the Moldovan security agency recruited him as an informant in 2001, while he was a college student in Moldova's capital, Chisinau.

But Mr. Vardanian's family members are certain that his self-implicating testimony was acquired under duress and is not true.

"This is a cheap circus," his wife Irina Vardanian told Russia's Kommersant newspaper. "He was forced to say this," agreed his mother Tamara Shagunian.

Mr. Vardanian, a 30 year-old polyglot and father of two small children, faces up to 20 years in prison. He is believed to have implicated himself to protect his family and in hopes of clemency.

Although the conflict between Moldova and PMR remains unsettled and PMR acts independently of Moldova, there is a range of economic ties and relatively free flow of people between the two entities. PMR is backed by Russia which is currently in talks with the Ukrainian government on lifting some of the existing restrictions on relations with PMR.

Officials from the United States, European Union and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all called on Transdniestrian authorities to release Mr. Vardanian from detention and hold a fair trial.

Shortly after the arrest last month, U.S. Ambassador to Moldova raised the matter when he traveled to the PMR capital, Tiraspol, for talks with the its leader Igor Smirnov.

Mr. Vardanian's friends believe that charges against him are bogus and stem from his recent selection for employment at the United Nations Secretariat in New York.

In his recorded statement Mr. Vardanian claimed that he was pressured by Moldovan operatives to work for them and against Russian interests at the UN.

Aleksandr Schetinin, director of Novy Region 2, a Russian news agency for which Mr. Vardanian wrote, questioned the testimony's validity and condemned PMR's treatment of Mr. Vardanian.

A range of Armenian groups has also weighed in on Mr. Vardanian's behalf since his arrest on April 7.

Yuri Hayrapetian, human rights ombudsman of the Armenian Nagorno Karabakh Republic, which has maintained ties with a fellow unrecognized republic, appealed to his PMR counterpart.

On May 12, a group of activists picketed the Russian Embassy in Yerevan with calls on the Russian government to intercede with the case.

Earlier Mr. Vardanian's family members in Tiraspol appealed to presidents of Russia and Armenia, as well as the Moscow-based Union of Armenians of Russia, the largest community organization.

Born in 1980 in Armenia, Mr. Vardanian with his family settled in Tiraspol following the 1988 earthquake that destroyed their home in Leninakan (Gyumri).

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