By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian leadership showed Tuesday no signs of impending punishment for violent youths that attacked journalists at an opposition rally in Yerevan, despite a barrage of criticism and condemnations from the country’s leading media associations.
Some of those groups alleged that the authorities themselves orchestrated the attempt to disrupt the gathering that led to the indiscriminate smashing of TV and still cameras by a group of anti-opposition thugs.
“All of this is incompatible with democratic principles and civilization in general,” said Astghik Gevorgian, chairwoman of the Armenian Union of Journalists.
The Armenian Press Club issued a more strongly-worded statement which accused the law-enforcement agencies of “neglecting their professional duty.” “This cowardly act was directed against freedom and pursued one goal: to hamper the spread of objective information,” the statement said.
“We condemn any illegal act, especially one directed against journalists and representatives of mass media,” the spokesman for President Robert Kocharian told RFE/RL. The official, Ashot Kocharian, would not say whether any orders were issued by the president in connection with the incident.
“It is incomprehensible why law-enforcement bodies did not intervene in those actions,” said Tigran Torosian, deputy speaker of Armenia’s parliament. “Regardless of who the perpetrators of that violence are, they must be unconditionally identified and punished.”
“The guilty must be held accountable before the law,” agreed another senior lawmaker, Hranush Hakobian.
Eyewitnesses, including an RFE/RL correspondent, say scores of police officers looked on as about two dozen thugs beat journalists and smashed cameras that documented their violent attempts to disrupt Sunday’s rally. The officers, among them the deputy chief of the national Police Service, ignored pleas to stop the rampage. The trouble-makers left the scene unimpeded.
The chief of the Yerevan police department, Nerses Nazarian, sought to justify the police inactivity with claims that his subordinates had been issued with orders to intervene in the proceedings only “in extreme cases.” Risking a further media outcry, he portrayed the attack as a mere “dispute of individuals with opposite views.”
“I have instructed the police department in [the central district of] Kentron to prepare materials regarding that fact in order to clarify circumstances and participants,” Nazarian said vaguely.
Several of the attackers were videotaped by a cameraman who managed to escape unscathed. The pictures were repeatedly broadcast by the private Kentron television.
Some media reports have identified the burly men with shaven heads as bodyguards of two millionaire businessmen with close ties to the government. Opposition leader Artashes Geghamian, the organizer of the rally, claimed that they work for another wealthy man who is Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s brother.
Kentron was the sole Armenian TV channel to provide detailed coverage of the attack. Other stations which also lost cameras chose to hush the matter up -- a fact strongly criticized by Boris Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club. Navasardian said the pro-Kocharian channels thereby acted against “journalistic solidarity.”
“Law enforcement officers present at the rally did nothing to stop the perpetrators of this violence,” the Association of Investigative Journalists of Armenia said in a statement. “Moreover, according to the journalists, the attackers, dressed in civilian clothes, were themselves officers of the law. This leads us to conclude that no one may be held responsible for this attack.”
But Torosian disputed the allegation, saying he does not think the violence was orchestrated by the authorities. He said it was rather a result of the “amtosphere of intolerance and hatred” that has developed in Armenia in recent weeks.
(Photo courtesy of Onnik Krikorian, Hetq Online: A police officer, circled, looks on as the anti-opposition men stir up trouble at Monday's rally.)