By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenian law-enforcement authorities said on Thursday they have detained the man who they believe attacked a photojournalist after he took pictures of luxury villas in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor apparently belonging to high-level officials and government-connected businessmen.
Mkhitar Khachatrian of the Photolur agency visited Tsaghkadzor on Tuesday with Anna Israelian, a correspondent for the “Aravot” daily, to assess damages caused to local forests by housing construction in recent years. The reporters say Khachatrian was forced to surrender the photo storage card of his digital camera after being beaten by one of several well-built men that guarded the villas.
In a brief statement, the Office of Prosecutor-General said detained and questioned on Wednesday “the individual who committed the crime.” He was identified as Gagik Stepanian. The statement said Stepanian will be charged with “hooliganism” and obstruction of journalists’ work. But it did not specify whether he was released after the interrogation or will be kept in custody pending trial.
According to Israelian, law-enforcement sources have unofficially confirmed that the 43-year-old man is a bodyguard of Levon Sargsian, a pro-government parliamentarian and wealthy businessman. Contacted by RFE/RL, Sargsian denied the information. But he added that the suspect “may be my acquaintance.”
Sargsian also confirmed that he has a villa in a picturesque area of Tsaghkadzor that used to be part of the nearby mountainous forest. He said he would have no problem with any journalist photographing the property.
“Just let me know and I’ll invite you to Tsaghkadzor,” the lawmaker better known to the public as “Alraghatsi Lyov” told RFE/RL. “I will treat you to dinner and you’ll see that I have nothing to hide there.”
Other houses in the exclusive neighborhood reportedly belong to Armen Yeritsian, deputy chief of the national Police Service, customs chief Armen Avetisian and millionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian.
Khachatrian and Israelian believe that the attack was initiated by a man who guarded Yeritsian’s mansion. They say he told Khachatrian to stop photographing it before ordering other men to attack him.
Israelian dismissed the criminal investigation as a public relations stunt, pointing to the Armenian authorities’ failure to punish any of the perpetrators of similar attacks on journalists earlier this year. Israelian was among those reporters who had their still and video cameras smashed by two dozen burly men that attempted to disrupt an opposition rally in Yerevan on April 5. The government’s response to the rampage amounted to minor fines imposed on only two of the thugs.
“I think that there will again be a symbolic punishment,” the veteran “Aravot” reporter predicted. “That man seems to be aware of this reality because when he grabbed the camera he said confidently, ‘I’ll destroy it and then pay its cost.’”
Armenia’s two leading media associations have strongly condemned the Tsaghkadzor incident, saying that it was the result of the authorities’ failure to properly investigate the earlier attacks and punish the guilty.
Also voicing concern was the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a leading international media watchdog based in New York. "CPJ calls on Armenian authorities to investigate the beating of our colleague and bring the man who attacked him to justice," its executive director, Ann Cooper, said in a statement on Wednesday. "We urge officials to ensure that journalists in Armenia are able to do their jobs without fear for their safety."