By Anna Saghabalian
The brother of the head of one of Yerevan’s administrative districts has been arrested on charges of assaulting a journalist who cast the local government in negative light, it emerged on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General’s Office, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL that that the man, Ruben Hovannisian, was detained and formally charged on Tuesday under articles of Armenia’s Criminal Code that deal with robbery, hooliganism and obstruction of journalists’ professional activities.
“Ruben Hovannisian was remanded in pre-trial custody by the court,” Truzian said. “He pleaded not guilty to the charges.”
Gagik Shamshian, a freelance correspondent for the “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” and “Aravot” newspapers, says the arrested man was one of the leaders of a 30-strong mob that allegedly attacked and robbed him of his mobile phone, tape recorder and wallet in the southern Nubarashen district on June 13. The district is governed by Hovannisian’s brother Mher.
Shamshian says the attackers were furious with his interview with RFE/RL, broadcast on the same day, in which he accused Hovannisian’s father of intimidating him. According to the reporter, the latter was angered by his article in “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” which said one of the suspects in a recent bank robbery in Yerevan was related to the Hovannisian family.
“They attacked and abused me, saying that I must leave Nubarashen,” Shamshian said, adding that he immediately reported the incident to the local police and prosecutor’s office.
The law-enforcement agencies launched a criminal investigation. Shamshian, who lives in Nubarashen, claimed that the local administration responded by cutting off electricity supplies and phone connection to his apartment before organizing an angry protest outside it.
“They were mainly employees of the district administration and their relatives,” he said. “They referred to me as a bacillus and demanded that I move out of Nubarashen.”
The journalist and Ruben Hovannisian were brought face to face and cross-examined by prosecutors on Wednesday. “He claimed that I am lying, but I insisted on the reality,” said Shamshian.
Mher Hovannisian, 27, is the youngest head of local government in Armenia. He took the helm of Nubarashen, the poorest and most remote area of Yerevan, after a September 2005 election that appeared to have degenerated into a vote-buying contest between him and the district’s previous mayor. Its outcome was essentially predetermined by the fact that Hovannisian was actively backed and sponsored by Gagik Tsarukian, one of the country’s richest men close to President Robert Kocharian.
Hovannisian’s father is reportedly a close partner of Tsarukian and runs a local liquefied gas station. The tycoon’s support for the young man translated into heavy campaign spending and control of the local election commissions.
Shamshian believes that the district chief is directly responsible for his troubles. “I have criticized so many people -- prosecutors, deputies, oligarchs -- presenting concrete facts and photographs of abuses committed by them,” he said. “They did not get furious. But this guy did.”
Shamshian’s case was mentioned by Armenia’s leading newspaper editors and civil rights activists that issued a joint statement last week expressing serious concern at what they see as growing pressure on journalists critical of the government.
The embattled reporter seems to have been very heartened by the statement. “I would lie if I said I wasn’t scared,” he told RFE/RL. “But after seeing that the media community stood by me I decided to keep doing my job.”