By Karine Kalantarian
A court in Yerevan convicted Thursday two men of involvement in last April’s unprecedented attack on journalists covering an opposition rally but stopped short of imprisoning them, fining each of them 100,000 drams ($182) instead.
Ashot Avetisian and Hrair Harutiunian admitted assaulting journalists and smashing their cameras and were found guilty of “deliberately damaging property” belonging to other persons. The light punishment was demanded by city prosecutors who cited “many mitigating circumstances” such as the defendants’ confession of their guilt.
The trial was dismissed as a farce by some of the journalists subjected to violence during the April 5 demonstration held in the Armenian capital by the opposition National Unity Party (AMK). “For me it’s obvious that they were simply carrying out orders on that day,” one of those reporters, Anna Israelian of the “Aravot” daily, told RFE/RL. “I still don’t have an answer to the question of how strictly those carrying out orders must be punished.
“The pre-trial investigation and the court did not wish to establish the complete picture of what happened on that day. They just buried the case.”
The AMK demonstration was nearly disrupted by about two dozen men who hurled eggs at the party’s leader Artashes Geghamian and set off firecrackers. Journalists at the scene filmed the attempted disruption only to have their video and still cameras smashed by the well-built thugs.
According to eyewitnesses, among them an RFE/RL correspondent, scores of police officers led by General Hovannes Varian stood nearby and looked on as the ugly scene unfolded. Their conspicuous refusal to intervene prompted speculation that the violence was engineered by the Armenian authorities.
Of all journalists questioned in connection with the case only Israelian has testified that the two defendants were among the attackers. The two other journalists, including a cameraman for state television, said they do not remember the men’s faces.
Avetisian and Harutiunian, for their part, refused to be cross-examined in the court, asking their lawyer to read out their written pre-trial testimony. They both denied being hired by anyone to stir up trouble and claimed to have found themselves at the site of the Geghamian rally “by chance.”
The announcement of the court verdict followed a brief but extremely tense trial. The small courtroom was packed with about 30 burly men who appeared to be the defendants’ friends or acquaintances. Several of them blocked entrance to the courtroom before the start of the hearings, preventing journalists from entering it and ignoring their protests. They did not relent even after being approached by the court chairman, Zhora Vartanian.
“Step aside and let them go in,” Vartanian told them. “Listen to me, I am the chairman of this court.”
The journalists were allowed to make their way into the courtroom only 15 minutes later. But two of them, officially listed as “victims” in the case, walked out shortly afterward in protest against the psychological pressure exerted by the attackers’ friends. Police guards showed up only half-way through the trial.