By Emil Danielyan
Police stood by and watched as a group of well-organized thugs attacked journalists, smashing cameras that caught them throwing eggs and firecrackers at thousands of opposition supporters who demonstrated in downtown Yerevan on Monday.
The violence, unprecedented for post-Soviet Armenia’s mass media, fits into what seems to be becoming a pattern in the increasingly tense political climate in the country, with groups of dubious individuals trying to disrupt opposition rallies and law-enforcement officials doing little to keep them in line.
Police inactivity was particularly palpable during the latest rally held by the National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian. Geghamian was repeatedly pelted with eggs as he addressed supporters, standing on top of a van. The attempted disruption was caused by about two dozen muscular men, most of them with shaven heads.
They responded aggressively to a chorus of condemnations and curses from the crowd, hitting some protesters who tried to approach them. Television cameramen and photojournalists were on hand to film the trouble only to be themselves attacked by the thugs. Most of the journalists, including a state television crew, had their expensive cameras smashed and vandalized. Reporters from Shant, a private TV station, escaped unscathed after surrendering their videotape to the attackers.
Onnik Krikorian, a British freelance photographer of Armenian descent, was punched in the face but managed to hold on to his camera after taking several pictures of the melee. “They’ve smashed cameras,” Krikorian said in shock. “They don’t care if someone has got a journalist’s pass around their neck, they don’t care if they are foreigners. They’ve got a job to do and that’s to hit people or throw eggs. That’s the only reason they are here.”
Another photographer, Hayk Gevorgian of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, was less lucky, watching helplessly as his digital camera was shattered to pieces. Anna Israelian, a veteran correspondent for another leading Armenian newspaper, “Aravot,” was knocked to the ground when she tried to photograph the rampage.
The ugly scene unfolded just meters away law-enforcement officers, among them the chief of the Yerevan police, who ignored pleas for help from demonstrators and journalists alike. “Why don’t you catch them? Aren’t you Armenian?” screamed one woman.
But the police officers continued to stand by silently, refusing to explain their indifference. One officer advised Krikorian to complain to the British embassy.
The rally continued after the trouble-makers left the scene, with Geghamian finishing his hour-long speech spiced with numerous statistical figures purporting to prove the “deplorable” socioeconomic situation in Armenia. Geghamian, holding his first rally in central Yerevan in more than a year, described the violent incident as a government “provocation” aimed at undermining the growing opposition campaign to unseat President Robert Kocharian.
Geghamian claimed in an RFE/RL interview later in the day that those who attacked the reporters were bodyguards of “three or four” business tycoons close to Kocharian. That they will be sent to the opposition demonstrations was first reported by “Aravot” last week.
Provocation charges were also made by the leaders of the opposition Artarutyun after their rally held in Gyumri a week earlier was marred by similar incidents. Attempts to disrupt it provoked a violent reaction from Artarutyun activists. Several of them clashed with plainclothes police and were arrested on the spot.
Speaking just hours after the announcement of National Unity’s joint actions with Artarutyun (Justice) alliance, Geghamian declared “the triumphant start of the country’s salvation.”
He also accused the authorities of deliberately maintaining high levels of poverty to “keep the people on their knees” “A whole nation is held captive by these looters,” he said.
The rally was initially due take place two hundred meters up the street, on a hillside square outside Yerevan’s museum of ancient manuscripts. The venue was changed after the protesters were turned away by scores of baton-wielding riot police who occupied it in the morning. The van which Geghamian climbed together with his deputy Sargis Muradkhanian served as a makeshift podium. The vehicle was impounded by the police immediately after the rally.
The authorities reportedly blocked all the roads leading to the capital to prevent opposition supporters from attending the anti-Kocharian protest. “All the roads are closed by the police, I came here on foot,” said, Mnatsakan Tonoyan, a 67-year resident of the town of Nor Hachn about 15 kilometers north of Yerevan.
Vardges Karapetian, his 70-year-old neighbor, also claimed to have walked for about three hours to reach the city. “I’ll be back April 9 if I stay healthy,” he said.