The photo, which appeared on the front-page of the pro-opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak,” shows Artyom Khachatrian of the “Azatamtutyun” newspaper and one of his aides drinking coffee and soft drinks with the convicts at Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison.
All five men smiled as they had their picture taken by an unknown photographer. Two of them, Derenik Bejanian and Eduard Grigorian, were among the gunmen that had burst into Armenia’s parliament in October 1999, killing its speaker Karen Demirchian, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and six other officials. They share their prison cell with Arsen Ardzruni, a former member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation convicted of being a member of a death squad that had allegedly operated in the early 1990s.
“Haykakan Zhamanak” called the photograph scandalous, saying that Khachatrian’s joint appearance with the convicted assassins was a serious breach of prison regulations. “What common things do they have to discuss and to do?” it asked in a dig at the editor who is reputed to have close ties to the government.
Representatives of the country’s two main pro-government parties questioned the authenticity of photograph. But Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party, said he will be “furious” if it turns out to be authentic. “To put it mildly, it’s a disgrace that creates a problem for state security,” he told the A1plus.am news service.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees Armenia’s prison, said later in the day that Danielian ordered ministry officials to look into the picture and determine whether the Nubarashen administration violated rules regulating visits to prison inmates. “The inquiry will show whether there was a violation,” Lana Mshetsian, a ministry spokeswoman, told RFE/RL.
Khachatrian, meanwhile, admitted visiting the three inmates on October 5 and having a “warm rapport” with them. “This photo was stolen from my office,” he told RFE/RL. “I know who stole and gave it to them.”
“If somebody is trying to see something extraordinary in this, then he is sick,” said Khachatrian. “We just had our picture taken. What’s wrong with that?”
“The law allows visits to prison cells,” he said. “Journalists are allowed to visit a prisoner in his cell with his consent.”
“Haykakan Zhamanak” asserted that under the Armenian prison rules, neither journalists nor anybody else can meet more than one prisoner at a time.
Khachatrian claimed that prison officials simply “saved time” by letting him pay a collective visit to Bejanian, Grigorian and Ardzruni. “The three happen to be kept in one prison cell,” he said.
Khachatrian’s daily is known for its hard-hitting and sometimes offensive commentaries that usually target opponents of Armenia’s current leadership. Opposition circles claim that “Azatamtutyun” is funded from President Sarkisian’s entourage. The paper claims to be independent, however.
Once a harsh critic of Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharian, Khachatrian is also known as the organizer of a non-stop sit-in that was staged by a small group of government supporters outside opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian’s house during the 2008 presidential race.