The lawyer of a young civic activist charged with ‘false denunciation’ after making allegations of sexual and other abuse at a Yerevan school for children with special needs has brushed aside the charge against her client as ‘totally ungrounded’ and pledged to seek the revelation of “real circumstances of the case”.
Nona Galstian, who defends Mariam Sukhudian, a member of the environment protection group SOS Teghut, formally charged by police last week, further accused the body investigating the case of failing to conduct a ‘full and objective’ investigation which she said was done for the purpose of a cover-up.
Mariam Sukhudian was among about a dozen young people who worked as volunteers at the Boarding School No. 11 in Yerevan’s Nubarashen suburb in April-June 2008 as part of a United Nations project to boost educational standards in Armenia. In their subsequent public pronouncements, they accused the school administration of failing to ensure the minimal standards of teaching and hygiene and routinely ill-treating and mal-nourishing students. They also alleged that children at the school had been subjected to beatings and other forms of physical punishment. Their joint statement cited some schoolgirls as alleging sexual harassment by one of their teachers, Levon Avagian.
Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls, subsequently identified as Diana Amirkhanian, and alerted Armenian media about her claims. The state-controlled Armenian Public Television aired two reports on the scandal, prompting the police to launch a criminal investigation. One of those reports featured an interview with another teenage girl who likewise claimed to have been molested by Avagian.
The police inquiry cleared the school personnel and Avagian in particular of any wrongdoing in February, even though the latter quit his job for still unknown reasons. The police initially moved to prosecute Amirkhanian but eventually turned on Sukhudian. A police statement earlier this month said that the young activist deliberately got Amirkhanian to “slander” her teacher for “personal gain.” It said the student renounced her claims during the inquiry.
Sukhudian, meanwhile, linked the extraordinary criminal case with her and her non-governmental organization’s vocal opposition to plans by Armenia’s second-largest mining company to develop Teghut, a massive copper and molybdenum field in the northern Lori region. The project, if implemented, will lead to the destruction of hundreds of hectares of rich forests.
A number of rights groups and activists have voiced their support for Sukhudian. Several dozen members of various Armenian non-governmental organizations picketed the police building to condemn the case against the environmental activist as she was summoned for interrogation last Wednesday.
Sukhudian’s lawyer on Monday said the goal of the defense would be to reveal the real circumstances of the case and “to ensure that a full and objective investigation is conducted and that those really responsible are called to account.”
Galstian also claimed several major violations of the procedure by investigators, including the terms of the launch of criminal proceedings and the competence of the body conducting an investigation on the ‘false denunciation’ charge. She said she had already alerted the prosecutor’s office about these violations.
Meanwhile, Susan Simonian, a former journalist at the Armenian Public Television’s news program Haylur, on the basis of whose report the case was initiated, confirmed at a press conference on Monday that neither of the two television reports alleging abuse at the school was prepared at Sukhudian’s suggestion.
Simonian, whose dismissal from Public Television in January was not officially linked to the reports aired shortly before, said the girl from the first report later retracted her claim under her parent’s pressure.
“I called her mother and asked her not to put pressure on the child. The mother said she had beaten her daughter and asked me not to bother them again,” said Simonian.
The investigation body considered only the first report on the allegations, disregarding the second one, in which another former student of the school also alleged molestation from the same teacher.
“These children are so vulnerable and helpless that they cannot defend themselves,” the journalist concluded.