By Gevorg Stamboltsian
Police brutality reached a new height in Armenia on Tuesday when four journalists covering the heavy-handed government response to an opposition demonstration were beaten up and badly injured by security forces.
It was the second instance of serious violence against Armenian media representatives in just over a week and the worst on record.
Police stood by and watched on April 5 as a group of pro-government thugs attacked reporters in Yerevan, smashing video and still cameras that documented their attempts to disrupt an anti-government rally. This time, according to the victims, law-enforcement officials were the direct perpetrators, making journalism an increasingly dangerous profession in Armenia.
Hayk Gevorgian, a well-known writer and photographer for the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, suffered in both incidents, having lost two expensive cameras in eight days. More importantly, he sustained serious injuries on his head, chest and back. He was hospitalized following a collective beating which he says was started by the deputy chief of the Armenian Police Service, General Hovannes Varian.
“He personally grabbed my photo camera first,” Gevorgian told RFE/RL. “I said something like ‘What does this mean?’ He shouted ‘You’ll now see what it means’, and more than a dozen other officers started hitting me.”
Gevorgian was then dragged into the next-door parliament compound where the beating continued relentlessly. He said: “People there seemed to wait for me. They immediately attacked me, kicking, punching and hitting me with clubs. I kept yelling ‘I’m a journalist, I’m a journalist’. But no one cared.”
A similar fate awaited Avetis Babajanian, another “Haykakan Zhamanak” correspondent also present at the scene of the bloodiest ever suppression of an opposition protest in post-Soviet Armenia. Babajanian said he was hit in the back and the feet while he was made to pass through two rows of baton-wielding security officers wearing helmets and flak jackets.
Levon Grigorian, a veteran cameraman for Russia’s largest ORT television network, saw his camera shattered to pieces before being knocked unconscious. Grigorian said he filmed thousands of people running away in panic when a group of plainclothes and uniformed men attacked him. He believes that they used electrical shock devices.
“They beat me unconscious and then threw me under a tree like a rag,” he said.
Another journalist, Mher Ghalechian of the “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” weekly, was beaten up and taken to a police station after he photographed security officers outside the ransacked office of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party. Ghalechian said he was set free in the evening after going on a hunger strike.
The unprecedented violence drew vehement protests and condemnations from Armenia’s media associations who linked it to the authorities’ failure to prosecute any of the thugs involved in the April 5 rampage. “This time the police themselves used force against journalists performing their duty,” the Yerevan Press Club, the Journalists Union of Armenia and the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression said in a joint statement.
“We call on all international organizations to obligate the Armenian authorities to respect international conventions signed by themselves and protect freedom of expression in the country,” said the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute.
(A1+ photo: Gevorgian showing police marks on his back.)