By Hovannes Shoghikian and Emil Danielyan
The Armenian police confirmed at the weekend that they have launched criminal proceedings against an outspoken journalist who claims to be the victim of a vendetta waged by an influential family controlling one of Yerevan’s districts.
“A criminal case has indeed been opened against a journalist,” General Hovannes Hunanian, deputy chief of the national Police Service, said, referring to Gagik Shamshian, a freelance correspondent and photographer for two independent newspapers.
Hunanian told reporters that Shamshian is suspected of committing “fraud” and “insulting citizens” in the city’s southern Nubarashen suburb where he rents a small apartment. He would not go into details of the unprecedented case, saying only that it is based on written complaints lodged by local residents.
Speaking to RFE/RL on Friday, Shamshian said the case was brought after he refused to retract his incriminating testimony against Ruben Hovannisian, the brother of the Nubarashen mayor who allegedly led an assault on the reporter last June. Hovannisian was arrested and charged with robbery, hooliganism and obstruction of a journalist’s professional activities last month before being released on bail last Wednesday. Shamshian’s allegations form the basis of a separate criminal case against the man.
Shamshian said a district police officer who interrogated him cited a “complaint” by one of his landlord’s relatives that he fails to pay rent on time, keeps “fake passports” in the apartment and has damaged its furniture. He also said he refused to let the police search the apartment on Friday without the presence of his lawyer.
According to Mikael Danielian, a human rights activist who is closely monitoring the saga, law-enforcement officers entered the apartment and searched it in the journalist’s absence. Danielian said one of the neighbors who witnessed the search later called Shamshian and told him that they took away his computer diskettes.
Shamshian has since been afraid of staying in his apartment and was effectively hiding from the police on Monday. “The police want to again interrogate Gagik but we have told them that he will not show up unless they send a written summons,” said Danielian. “The whole affair is a clear infringement of freedom of speech.”
Shamshian appears to have incensed the 27-year-old head of the Nubarashen government, Mher Hovannisian, and his family last June when he reported that one of the men arrested in connection with a bank robbery in Yerevan is related to them. He says he was bullied by Hovannisian’s father and then attacked by an angry mob after publicizing the alleged intimidation.
The case against Shamshian comes on the heels of the controversial arrest and prosecution on charges of military service evasion of Arman Babajanian, editor of the “Zhamanak Yerevan” newspaper critical of the government. The editors of Armenia’s leading newspapers have expressed serious concern about the case, demanding that Babajanian be set free pending trial. Law-enforcement authorities rejected the demand, however.