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Armenians Say Compatriate's Mistreatment Reveals Russian Prejudice

Fears that discriminory attitudes in Russia will deny compatriate of fair trial in fatal crash case.
By Gohar Abrahamyan

Angry protests have been held outside the Russian embassy in Yerevan over the public humiliation of an Armenian man arrested after his truck was involved in a fatal accident near Moscow. 

Eighteen people died when Hrachya Harutyunyan’s truck collided with a bus on July 13 near the town of Podolsk, just outside the Russian capital.

Harutyunyan was one of dozens of survivors taken to hospital. Police then took him from the hospital to court, where Russian television showed him unshaven and wearing a woman’s housecoat as charges of causing death by dangerous driving were read out.

About 20 Armenian journalists wrote to their colleagues in the Russian Union of Journalists to complain of prejudicial coverage, such as TV Channel One’s main news programme which repeatedly stressed his ethnicity and said he “mumbled” during his court appearance.

Hovik Abrahamyan, speaker of the Armenian parliament, sent a letter expressing sympathy with the crash victims and their relatives, but underlining that the way the truck driver had been treated was unacceptable. He said he hoped the police would investigate both the causes of the collision and the actions of those who had humiliated Harutyunyan.

In Armenia, many saw the incident as a reflection of racist attitudes in Russia.

For two days in a row, more than 100 people gathered outside the Russian embassy in Yerevan, holding up women’s housecoats and signs saying, “We demand humane treatment for Armenian citizens,” “Housecoat justice in Russia, stop your chauvinism” and “Here’s a housecoat, wear it yourself”.

More than a dozen Facebook groups have been set up in support of Harutyunyan. The most popular, intended to collect money for him, gained almost 20,000 “likes”.

Avetik Ishkhanyan, head of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, accused Russian officials of deliberately exploiting the tragedy.

“This is clearly a political decision, and I don’t think the law enforcement agencies would have made this decision on their own. This man was deliberately humiliated,” he said. “It isn’t just a slight to our national pride, it shows Russia’s disdain for the Armenian state.”

Stepan Grigoryan, head of the Yerevan -based Analytical Centre for Globalisation and Regional Cooperation, said the strength of anti-immigrant feeling in Russia meant it was doubtful the suspect would get a fair trial.

“Russia has a problem with immigrants,” he said. “There are thousands of immigrants from various countries, and Russia is just tired of it. This case has raised a big fuss, and the Russians are trying to use it to provoke a wave of indignation against immigrants.”

Russian nationalism has grown under President Vladimir Putin, often accompanied by animosity towards people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially. In its ugliest form, it has generated racist violence.

At the same time, Armenia is a long-standing ally that Moscow would not wish to lose, given their enduring economic and security ties.

In response to the protest, the Russian embassy in Yerevan issued a statement on July 17 expressing regret at what it said was the misuse of a sad event to whip up anti-Russian sentiment.

“We consider it completely unacceptable to use a great human tragedy for political ends and to undermine Russian-Armenian relations,” the statement said. “Mercenary, politicised comments are unacceptable. The tragedy near Podolsk has no ethnic dimension, and it will be investigated thoroughly, impartially, carefully and impassively.”

Harutyunyan’s daughter Lilit told journalists that she was grieving for everyone killed in the accident.

She expressed hope that if her father was convicted, he would be allowed to serve his sentence in Armenia. Aram Vardevanyan, head of the legal department at the office of Armenia’s ombudsman, said it should be a straightforward matter to secure such an arrangement under the Minsk Convention, a justice agreement involving Soviet states.

Gohar Abrahamyan is a reporter with the ArmeniaNow.com website.