Law-enforcement authorities have unexpectedly charged four Armenian police officers with assaulting journalists during last year’s dramatic protests in Yerevan against a controversial increase in electricity prices.
The Armenian police detained more than 230 people as they broke up a demonstration on the city’s central Marshal Bagramian Avenue early on June 23, 2015. More than two dozen protesters were injured in the crackdown.
Police officers also beat up and detained more than a dozen reporters and smashed or confiscated cameras used by some of them, including RFE/RL journalists Artur Papian and Sisak Gabrielian and cameramen Garik Azibekian and Garik Harutiunian. General Levon Yeranosian, a deputy police chief, swore at them when they were attacked by his subordinates in the city’s Liberty Square.
The officers broke Papian’s mobile phone and smashed a video camera that was used for the live streaming of the overnight protests. Azibekian was also forced to surrender another camera’s memory card.
In October, the police donated a similar camera and a mobile phone to RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau in compensation for the destroyed equipment.
Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS), a law-enforcement body overseen by prosecutors, opened a criminal case in connection with the attacks on the journalists shortly after the crackdown. However, it stopped short of prosecuting anyone until now, calling into question the authorities’ pledges to punish those responsible for the violence.
Over the past year, Armenian press freedom groups have been particularly critical of their reluctance to take even disciplinary action against Yeranosian. The notoriously violent general is the commander of Armenian interior troops that are part of the national police service.
The SIS announced on Tuesday that four policemen, all of them identified only by their initials, have been formally charged with abuse of power and obstruction of journalists’ professional activities, a criminal offense under Armenian law. One of them, a lieutenant colonel, also stands accused of damaging the journalists’ equipment, said an SIS statement.
The surprise SIS announcement came less than two weeks after at least 14 reporters, including three RFE/RL correspondents, were attacked and injured by a large group of men during the dispersal of an opposition rally in Yerevan. Its participants marched to the city’s Sari Tagh neighborhood to voice support for anti-government gunmen that seized a nearby police station on July 17 to demand regime change in the country.
The gunmen affiliated with a fringe nationalist group surrendered to security forces after a two-week standoff that left two police officers dead.
Yeranosian was among high-ranking police officers that personally ordered and oversaw the use of what many in Armenia consider excessive force against the protesters and the violence against the journalists that covered the rally. Not surprisingly, Armenian opposition groups, media associations and human rights activists have again singled out the notorious police general for blame.
Responding to the criticism, the authorities have sacked the chief of Yerevan’s police department, Ashot Karapetian, and suspended five other police officers, including Yeranosian’s brother Lernik.
Another 13 officers have been subjected to disciplinary action. Levon Yeranosian is not among them.
Still, the Armenian government did raise questions about Yeranosian’s continued tenure on Tuesday when it announced that Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian has allowed the general to go on a one-month vacation.