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By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman, warned on Thursday that violence against Armenian journalists seems to be becoming “systematic” and poses a serious threat to press freedom in the country.

“Freedom of speech is really in danger,” he said. “We urge all relevant law-enforcement bodies to take the problem very seriously and solve those crimes.”

“When you have four or five such cases in as many months, you can’t help but see an alarming trend,” he added.

Harutiunian joined last week Armenian media associations and human rights groups in condemning the reported beating of Hovannes Galajian, editor of the opposition-linked “Iravunk” newspaper. They fear that such attacks could become more frequent in advance of next year’s parliamentary elections because of the Armenian authorities’ failure so far to punish their perpetrators.

But the authorities clearly think otherwise. While condemning the editor’s beating, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian insisted late Wednesday that such incidents are not becoming a pattern. “Yes, a journalist was beaten up, and that’s very bad,” Markarian told reporters. “But that doesn’t mean the whole country is criminalized. Why are we creating such an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness in the country?”

Galajian and his staff suspect that powerful government figures such as Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian may have been behind the attack. Sarkisian has angrily rejected the suspicion, saying that he has no habit of fighting against “wretched people” like Galajian.

Harutiunian, who served as President Robert Kocharian’s top legal expert before taking over the Office of the State Human Rights defender, strongly disapproved of the derogatory description. “No newspaper editor or person in general can be wretched,” he told a news conference. “And I am convinced that there are no wretched people in our society. If somebody is portrayed as wretched, we are ready to stand by them.”

The ombudsman also described as too harsh a four-year prison sentence given last Friday to another newspaper editor, Arman Babajanian, who was convicted of illegally avoiding military service. He admitted that Babajanian may well have received a shorter sentence if his “Zhamanak Yerevan” newspaper was not in opposition to the government.

“I don’t think that his action warranted a four-year imprisonment,” said Harutiunian.

(Photolur photo: Armen Harutiunian.)
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