A pro-government youth activist who led fellow students attacking and verbally abusing journalists last December has been appointed as deputy head of one of Armenia’s leading state-run universities.
Sevak Khachatrian has until now headed the student council of the Armenian State Economics University (ASEU). He earned notoriety during violence that marred the granting of a controversial ASEU doctoral degree to Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian.
Markarian supposedly defended his dissertation on municipal business administration at a ceremony that was held behind the closed doors despite a legal requirement that such procedures must be open to the public and the media in particular. Journalists, among them an RFE/RL correspondent, were confronted by several dozen aggressive youths led by Khachatrian as they tried unsuccessfully to cover the event. The young men mocked, threatened and swore at the press corps during the scuffle.
Some of the reporters lodged afterwards a complaint with the Armenian police. They cited an article of Armenia’s Criminal Code that makes it a crime to obstruct the work of journalists. The police refused to do that despite angry condemnations voiced by some opposition leaders on the parliament floor. Lawmakers from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) dismissed opposition allegations that the incident is further proof of impunity enjoyed by government loyalists.
Independent and pro-opposition media outlets were quick to circulate at the time a 2012 Facebook picture of Khachatrian and three other youths, also involved in the ASEU incident, standing alongside President Serzh Sarkisian. They all wore HHK lapel pins.
Education Minister Ashotian, who is also a deputy chairman of Sarkisian’s party, confirmed and defended Khachatrian’s appointment as ASEU deputy rector at a news conference on Monday. He claimed that many youths sympathetic or linked to the opposition also have a history of violent or offensive conduct.
“There are many YouTube videos in which some activists insult police in a much more unacceptable way … Have those people ever apologized to the policemen or the society? I can’t understand these double standards,” said Ashotian.
The minister pointed to a December statement in which Khachatrian and other students implicitly apologized for their actions. They claimed at the same time that they succumbed to journalists’ “provocations.”
Both Khachatrian and the ASEU rector, Koryun Atoyan, refused to comment on the controversial appointment.
Gagik Aghbalian, a reporter for the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily who was also barred from covering the Yerevan mayor’s dissertation defense, said the senior academic position given to the young government loyalist is a reward for his violent actions. “This is not the first case of HHK members behaving like that when people exercise their human rights,” he said. “So this promotion was not unexpected to me.”
Ashot Melikian of the Yerevan-based Committee to Protect Free Speech also criticized Khachatrian’s appointment. “What can he teach students and young people in general?” Melikian asked.