By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A man reportedly linked to a wealthy pro-government parliamentarian went on trial Thursday, accused of assaulting a photojournalist who took pictures of luxury villas belonging to high-level Armenian officials and government-connected businessmen.
The incident took place in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor in central Armenia on August 24. The photographer, Mkhitar Khachatrian, visited it with a correspondent for the “Aravot” daily, Anna Israelian, to assess damage caused to local forests by expensive housing construction. 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.
One of them, Gagik Stepanian, was arrested on August 26 and has since been kept in detention on charges of “hooliganism” and “obstruction of journalists’ work.” He is the sole defendant at the trial which began in the court of first instance of Hrazdan, the administrative center of the central Kotayk region. The 43-year-old father of two faces up to two years in prison if found guilty. He has already had two criminal convictions in the past.
Stepanian, 43, only partly pleaded guilty to the charges at the start of the court hearings, denying that he hit and swore at Khachatrian. He claimed that he simply “jostled” the photographer and took away the digital chip after being photographed with his girlfriend in the woods. He also said that he did not know that they were journalists.
The claims were denied by Israelian and an “Aravot” driver who drove the reporters to Tsaghkadzor from Yerevan. She insisted that Khachatrian only took images of the expensive houses.
The photographer, who works for the private Photolur agency, is not attending the trial. He is expected to ask prosecutors to read out his pre-trial testimony in the court and avoid cross-examination. He has already been paid $250 compensation by the suspect.
The reporters believe the attack was provoked by a man who guarded the villa of Armen Yeritsian, the deputy chief of the Armenian police, in Tsaghkadzor’s new exclusive neighborhood. They say he told Khachatrian to stop photographing it before ordering Stepanian and several other men to attack him.
Stepanian is widely believed to work as a bodyguard for Levon Sargsian, a wealthy parliamentarian notorious for punching an opposition colleague on the parliament floor in 2002. Sargsian, who is better known to the public as “Alraghatsi Lyov,” has denied any connection with the suspect, however. He was not questioned during the pre-trial investigation and will not appear before the Hrazdan court.
The Tsaghkadzor incident has been strongly condemned by Armenian media associations. They said it was made possible by the authorities’ failure to prosecute the perpetrators of previous attacks on the local journalists. Western media watchdogs have also expressed concern at the violence.