By Astghik Bedevian
An embattled Armenian journalist went on trial Wednesday on a string of criminal charges which he sees as a retaliation for his high-profile dispute with a local government chief.
Criminal proceedings against Gagik Shamshian, a freelance correspondent for the “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” and “Aravot” newspapers, were launched last August shortly after he claimed to have been assaulted by men close to Mher Hovannisian, the young mayor of Yerevan’s Nubarashen suburb. Shamshian stands accused of extortion, fraud and defamation of character, unusually grave charges that could land him in prison for up to seven years.
Prosecutors claim that he “extorted” money from several Nubarashen residents between 1998 and 2004 in return for not writing articles critical of them. They say he also borrowed cash from other locals and never gave it back.
“I never extorted money from them. They are lying,” Shamshian insisted after the first court hearing that adjourned shortly after the start of the trial.
In his words, all six alleged victims of extortion have ties with Hovannisian. “One of them is the mayor’s driver, another is a godson of the mayor’s assistant, Gurgen Gasparian, while the four others were Mher Hovannisian’s election proxies,” he said.
The defamation charge stems from cartoons depicting Nubarashen residents that were drawn by Shamshian and never published by any Armenian periodical. The reporter says he gave those pictures to the cartoon characters as gifts.
Shamshian also claimed that a senior prosecutor recently offered to drop the charges if he confessed to them in a letter to the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He stood by his claims that law-enforcement officials had earlier tried to force him to retract his allegations that a group of men led by the Nubarashen mayor’s brother Ruben beat him in June over his newspaper reports criticizing the local authorities.
Ruben Hovannisian was arrested and charged with hooliganism and obstruction of journalists’ professional activities last July but was subsequently released and cleared of the accusations. Shortly afterwards, police officers broke into Shamshian’s Nubarashen apartment and searched it, citing a “complaint” lodged by one of his landlord’s relatives. The latter told the police that the journalist failed to pay rent on time, damaged the apartment furniture and possessed several “fake passports.” The journalist had to move out of the neighborhood as a result.
Nubarashen is Yerevan’s poorest and most remote administrative district. Its 28-year-old mayor is the youngest head of a local government in Armenia. He took office in September 2005 following a local election that was characterized by widespread vote buying. Mher Hovannisian’s father reportedly has business ties with Gagik Tsarukian, one of the country’s richest men close to President Robert Kocharian.