By Anna Saghabalian
An independent Armenian journalist claimed on Friday to be harassed by law-enforcement authorities for refusing to retract his incriminating testimony against the brother of a local government chief who allegedly assaulted him two months ago.
Gagik Shamshian, a freelance correspondent for the “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” and “Aravot” newspapers, looked scared and nervous as he visited the RFE/RL bureau after undergoing what he described as a police interrogation.
Shamshian insists that he was attacked in Yerevan’s southern Nubarashen suburb on June 13 by a large group of relatives and friends of the district governor, Mher Hovannisian, who were furious with his news reports highly critical of the local government. He says they threatened and repeatedly hit him before stealing his mobile phone, tape recorder and wallet.
One of the alleged attackers, Hovannisian’s brother Ruben, was arrested and charged with robbery, hooliganism and obstruction of journalists’ professional activities last month as part of a criminal investigation launched by state prosecutors. The suspect was released on bail on Wednesday.
Shamshian, who rents a small apartment in Nubarashen, told RFE/RL that earlier this week a prosecutor investigating the case, Hayk Mangoyan, told him to retract his allegations that form the basis of the criminal case against Ruben Hovannisian. He said he refused and was then summoned to the district’s police department and informed about 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,” he said.
“There was even a complaint by drivers of the local minibuses who claimed that I am interfering with their work and terrorizing the people of Nubarashen,” added Shamshian.
In Shamshian’s words, on Friday morning he was again interrogated by a senior police officer who said a criminal case has been opened against him and demanded that he help law-enforcement officers search his apartment. He said he refused to let them do that without the presence of his lawyer before deciding to go public.
“I’ve just received a phone call from a friend saying that officials from the local government and firefighters are breaking into the apartment,” said Shamshian. “So I guess they will break the door and be able to plant anything there.”
A spokeswoman for Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General, Sona Truzian, said district prosecutors did not launch any criminal proceedings against him but confirmed that they have citizen complaints detailing “crimes” committed by the outspoken reporter. “Those complaints are now being studied,” Truzian told RFE/RL without elaborating.
Mher Hovannisian, the 27-year-old Nubarashen mayor, is the youngest head of local government in Armenia. He took control of the poorest and most remote area of Yerevan in a September 2005 election that was characterized by widespread buying of votes. His father reportedly has close business ties with Gagik Tsarukian, one of the country’s richest men close to President Robert Kocharian.
Shamshian appears to have enraged the Hovannisians last June when he wrote in “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” that one of the suspects in a recent bank robbery in Yerevan is related to them. He believes that they are behind his latest troubles. “I am 100 percent sure that all of this was organized by the community mayor Mher Hovannisian and his father,” he said.
Shamshian’s case was mentioned by Armenia’s leading newspaper editors and civil rights activists in a recent joint statement that expressed serious concern at what they see as growing pressure on journalists critical of the government.
(Photolur photo: Mher Hovannisian.)