By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A man believed to be a bodyguard of an Armenian pro-government parliamentarian was sentenced to six months in prison on Monday for beating a photojournalist who took pictures of plush villas belonging to senior government officials.
Gagik Stepanian, 43, was convicted of “hooliganism” and “obstruction of journalists’ work” following a brief trial in the central town of Hrazdan. He became the first person to have been jailed for assaulting reporters in post-Soviet Armenia. However, he is unlikely to serve the sentence in full.
The local court of first instance found Stepanian guilty of attacking Mkhitar Khachatrian of the Photolur photo agency in the nearby resort town of Tsaghkadzor on August 24. The photographer visited the picturesque area with a correspondent for the “Aravot” daily, Anna Israelian, to document 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.
The ruling handed down by the judge matched the punishment demanded by the trial prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan. Piloyan admitted that violence against Armenian journalists has grown more frequent this year and said a guilty verdict could reverse that trend.
Stepanian, who had already served two jail terms for illegal arms and drug possession, pleaded guilty only to some of the charges, denying that he hit and swore at Khachatrian. The married father of two claimed that he simply “jostled” the photographer and took away the digital chip after being photographed with a girlfriend in the woods. The prosecution found that claim unsubstantiated.
Locked in a courtroom cage, the defendant behaved aggressively at the final court session, swearing at and threatening reporters that took his picture in the dock. He promised to “see” them after getting out of prison.
His release will not be long in coming. Armenian law allows judges to free convicts after they serve one third of their sentences. It counts every day spent in pre-trial detention as 1.5 days’ imprisonment. Stepanian was arrested on August 26, meaning that he is already considered to have served more than a third of his term. Few observers doubt that he will be set free soon.
A legal representative of the two reporters complained at the trial that the authorities failed to prosecute a man who they believe provoked the Tsaghkadzor violence. Khachatrian and Israelian say the man, Lyudvig Hakobian, was the first to tell them to stop taking images of the villas before ordering Stepanian and several other men to attack them.
Hakobian is said to have guarded the Tsaghkadzor mansions of the deputy chief of the national Police Service, Armen Yeritsian, and the head of the State Customs Committee, Armen Avetisian. He testified at the trial as a witness, denying any involvement in the beating. Its other alleged participants were not questioned at all.
("Aravot" photo: Stepanian reacting angrily to being photographed in the dock.)