By Ruzanna Khachatrian
An Armenian photojournalist was beaten up Tuesday for taking pictures of plush mansions apparently belonging to a high-level police official and other government-connected individuals, the latest in a series of violent attacks on representatives of the country’s media.
Mkhitar Khachatrian of the Photolur agency was attacked in Tsaghkadzor, a resort town in central Armenia where he was on assignment together with Anna Israelian, a correspondent for the independent daily “Aravot.” Israelian was preparing an article about the damage to local mountainous forests caused by housing construction in recent years.
The two reporters told RFE/RL that they were surveying an expensive residential area when a man guarding one of its houses, reputedly owned by Armen Yeritsian, deputy chief of the national police, told Khachatrian to stop taking pictures.
“It was a very beautiful building and I wanted to photograph it,” Khachatrian said. “He told me that I can’t do that, saying ‘Do you know whose neighborhood you have entered?’. But I did take a shot and left the neighborhood.”
The reporters said they were later confronted by the same person at an indoor cafe as they were about to leave Tsaghkadzor. “The man who warned me against taking pictures recognized me and then called a group of other men. Suddenly one of them attacked me,” said Khachatrian, who had traces of violence on his neck and arms.
The photographer added that the man kicked, punched, cursed and threatened to kill him. He said he prevented his expensive digital camera from being smashed by surrendering its picture storage card to the attackers. “They would have broken the camera had I not told them to take the card. I had no choice,” he said.
Khachatrian described the attackers as burly men with “shaven heads and thick necks.” The description matches the appearance of two dozen thugs that indiscriminately destroyed video and still cameras which filmed their attempts to stir up trouble at an opposition rally in Yerevan on April 5. Riot police stood by and refused to intervene, giving weight to reports that the violence was provoked by the Armenian authorities.
Israelian said he believes that the man who beat Khachatrian was the chief bodyguard of Levon Sargsian, a wealthy pro-government parliamentarian notorious for punching an opposition colleague two years ago. Also having a house in the same Tsaghkadzor area is Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia’s richest men who also holds a parliament seat.
According to some media reports, Tsarukian’s and Sargsian’s men were among the participants of the April 5 rampage. Only two of them have faced a largely symbolic punishment for their role in the violence. A Yerevan court fined them 100,000 drams ($195) each on June 10 following a brief trial dismissed as a “farce” by Armenia’s leading media associations.
Two of those groups, the Armenian Journalists Union and the Yerevan Press Club were quick to condemn the Tsaghkadzor attack. “The violence against the journalist and the obstruction of his work are the consequence of the failure to punish those guilty of the previous incidents,” they said in a joint statement. “We demand a meaningful intervention from the law-enforcement bodies to identify and punish the guilty.”
But Israelian, who lost her camera on April 5 and was a key witness at the subsequent trial, said it would be “ridiculous” for her to turn to the police again. Khachatrian, who is the author of the most famous photograph of victims of the catastrophic 1988 earthquake in Armenia, likewise said he will not lodge a formal complaint with the law-enforcement authorities.
Violence against Armenian journalists, uncommon in the past, increased dramatically this year with the start of the Armenian opposition’s unsuccessful spring campaign to oust President Robert Kocharian. In the most serious of such incidents, four reporters were beaten up by security forces during the brutal of break-up of another opposition demonstration in Yerevan in the early hours of April 13. Two of them were severely injured.
(Photolur photo: Mkhitar Khachatrian.)