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Journalist's Arrest Worries Armenian Activists

Assault charge seen as excessive for reporter accused of pulling policeman’s hat off.
By Karine Asatryan

Rights activists in Armenia are increasingly concerned about the case of Ani Gevorgyan, a 23-year-old journalist arrested at the end of May and charged with assaulting an official after she pulled off a policeman’s cap.

Arrested after an opposition protest in which activists from the Armenian National Congress, ANC, tried to gain access to Freedom Square in the capital Yerevan, Gevorgyan was held for 72 hours before being released on June 3.

“I did not use force against anyone,” she said, adding that while police were confronting the ANC on May 30-31, “the police kept interfering with my work. They wouldn’t allow me to take photographs. The police tried to take my camera from me, they beat my legs and back, they abused me, and they ordered me not to take pictures.”

Her brother, an ANC activist, was detained along with her and was also charged.

“They threw me into the police car. My brother Sargis was in the car before me. Policemen pushed past me to get to Sargis and started beating him,” she said.

Gevorgyan’s newspaper, the Armenian Times, accused the police force and specifically its national chief, Alik Sargsyan, of pursuing a vendetta against its journalist because they did not like her work.

“Alik Sargsyan became unhappy because of a piece by Ani in which she showed that the police’s anthem was a talentless copy of the Georgian police’s anthem,” said Anna Hakobyan, the newspaper’s director.

The police insist the reason Gevorgyan was charged was that she tore off a policeman’s cap.

“If you take photos from a decent distance, no one will come up to you. No policeman will interfere with you,” said police spokesman Sayat Shirinyan. “If you don’t provoke them, then no one will take against you…. We should be glad our police are tolerant and are in no hurry to use violence.”

Such arguments did not satisfy human rights groups in Armenia. Arthur Sakunts, head of the office of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, said the Armenian Times had long been targeted by the police because of its opposition sympathies.

The paper’s editor Nikol Pashinyan was arrested after a bloody crackdown on opposition protests in March 2008 and sentenced to more than three years in prison for “using force against a representative of the authorities”.

“They jailed the editor, but the authorities think he has not calmed down. His internment did not affect his views or work,” said Sakunts.

He said the police should sack the officer who complained about Gevorgyan.

“Something is not right here,” he said. “If he can’t deal with an assault by a young woman, what’s he going to do if there’s a murder or someone uses a weapon? Will he hide in a corner?”

That was a point picked up by other rights groups, nine of which produced a joint statement asked how a 23-year-old woman could be viewed as a threat to a police officer.

“It isn’t very grown-up,” said Ashot Melikyan, chairman of the Committee for the Defence of Free Speech. “Even if this incident did take place, it could have been resolved without a case being launched.”

Melikyan said police frequently used force against journalists and then accused the latter of violent behaviour. His committee said the number of assaults on journalists had increased to five cases in the first quarter of the year from three in the first quarter of 2009.

Eduard Sharmazanov, a member of parliament from the government-allied Republican Party, said he would not comment on the specifics of the case until he had more information about it.

“I won’t say there haven’t been problems relating to journalists, since there have been articles about it,” he said. “But I can’t say whether these have been connected to their professional activities or not. Whatever the case, assaults are of course to be condemned, especially when they occur as part of a journalist’s professional activities.”

Karine Asatryan is editor of www.a1plus.am.

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