An Armenian-American observer who claims to have witnessed serious fraud in Armenia’s recent presidential election on Tuesday accused law-enforcement authorities in Yerevan of blackmailing her with intimate photographs that were taken secretly.
Narine Esmaeli, who works for the Armenian branch of Transparency International, monitored the February 18 election together with a local observer at a polling station in Artashat, a town notorious for electoral fraud and violence. They were part of a vote-monitoring group set up by the Europe Union of Law, a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization.
They say they were assaulted by a large group of government loyalists that stuffed hundreds of ballots. Esmaeli has also accused local police officers of bullying her after the incident.
The allegations picked up by Armenian opposition and civic groups resulted in the launch of a criminal investigation by the Special Investigative Service (SIS), a law-enforcement agency subordinate to state prosecutors. They also led Armenia’s Constitutional Court to invalidate the official vote results in the troubled Artashat precinct.
Armenia - Armenian-American activist Narine Esmaeli speaks in Yerevan.
Esmaeli claimed that the chief SIS investigator in the case, Gorik Hovakimian, told her in a phone call on March 19 that the Transparency International office in Yerevan has sent him intimate pictures of her along with purported evidence of vote rigging in Artashat. “He said that he wants to kindly return them to me,” the 21-year-old woman told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“I didn’t go to pick up the photos because I don’t care about them. It was obvious that they will use them for blackmail,” she said.
The SIS offered a different version of events, saying that it got hold of a more than 5-hour-long footage taken in the bathroom of Esmaeli’s Yerevan apartment. In a written reply to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), the law-enforcement body claimed that the video was sent to the Central Election Commission by the Europe Union of Law.
Sona Ayvazian, deputy director of Transparency International’s Armenian branch, laughed off the SIS claims, saying that her group could have secretly filmed or photographed Esmaeli.
“Either there is no such private material or the police themselves secretly filmed it,” Ayvazian said. “Narine’s apartment is right next to a police station and they could have filmed it. Such methods are simply ridiculous in the modern world.”
Lusine Hakobian, the Europe Union of Law director, similarly strongly denied sending any embarrassing personal information about Esmaeli to the CEC.
The allegations of blackmail appear to have been taken seriously by the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. U.S. Ambassador John Heffern met with Esmaeli on March 21, two days after the alleged phone call from the SIS investigator.
An embassy statement issued after the meeting said that Heffern “will continue to monitor the case very closely.” “The welfare of United States citizens abroad remains the highest priority for the United States government,” added the statement.
Esmaeli and the SIS traded other accusations earlier in March. The Armenian-American activist’s lawyer, Tigran Yegorian, attempted to record her interrogations by investigators after she accused them of distorting her testimony written down by them. The SIS denounced Yegorian’s actions as illegal before asking Armenia’s Chamber of Advocates to take disciplinary action against the lawyer.