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By Armine Geghamian
The editor of an independent newspaper in southeastern Armenia said on Wednesday that a group of local loyalists of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian attacked him and ransacked his office after it ran articles questioning government policies.

Samvel Aleksanian of the “Syuniats Yerkir” weekly based in Kapan, the administrative center of the Syunik region, said the attack was carried out in the morning by three young men led by the head of the local branch of Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK). He claimed that they hit and injured him with wooden clubs.

“Right after that they told me that the newspaper must not write anything about the country’s prime minister and the Syunik governor anymore,” Aleksanian told RFE/RL from Kapan. “Otherwise, they said, the newspaper offices and car would be burned down. As they left they shouted more threats and insults.

“I replied that the newspaper will now be more consistent in its work. From now on, we will provide an even better coverage of issues which they don’t want to be highlighted.”

The editor appealed to President Robert Kocharian and Armenian law-enforcement agencies to investigate the incident. “If they don’t punish those thugs we will be forced to take measures for self-defense,” he said

An officer at the Syunik police headquarters told RFE/RL that they have already launched an investigation. According to Aleksanian, the police found and returned to the newspaper a mobile phone stolen by the attackers. It was not clear if anyone was detained or questioned in the process, however.

In Yerevan, meanwhile, Markarian said he is not aware of the reported incident. “I hear about that for the first time. I will try to clear things up,” he said. “In any case, I consider the beating of journalists inadmissible.”

At issue, according to Kapan journalists, is an article in a September issue of “Syuniats Yerkir” that questioned government motives for the recent closure of two regional secondary schools as part of massive nationwide lay-offs of teachers.

“We directed that question to the country’s prime minister and education minister,” Aleksanian said. He added that the local authorities responded on September 28 by evicting the newspaper staff from offices which they rented in the Kapan building that houses the regional administration. But the paper again addressed the issue in its next edition, he said.

Syunik’s governor, Surik Khachatrian, has close ties with the HHK. He was based in the regional town of Goris before his appointment by the central government last March. Goris and the surrounding villages have long been considered a de facto fiefdom of Khachatrian and his extended family.

The “Syuniats Yerkir” editor said Khachatrian, better known with his “Liska” nickname, and other regional officials are extremely intolerant of dissent. “They think that there must be no other opinion in the Syunik region,” he said. “You are not supposed to question anything.”

The reported violence in Kapan is the latest in a series of attacks on Armenian journalists which have raised domestic and international concerns about the state of press freedom in Armenia. It came just two days after a court in another part of the country sentenced to six months a man who reportedly beat up a photojournalist for taking pictures of expensive houses belonging to senior government officials.
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