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Armenian investigation of attacks on journalists brings convictions; demands for police role to be investigated

The Association of European Journalists welcomes the Armenian government’s acknowledgement of police ‘blunders’ in their treatment of journalists injured on the night of 29 July 2016 during a police operation to clear the area around a police station in Yerevan that was the site of a violent siege and hostage-taking incident. But a lawyer for victims of the street violence strongly contests the authorities’ claim that no police officer was engaged in the violence against journalists. At least 60 people were reportedly hospitalized for injuries caused by the use of police stun grenades among a crowd of protestors as well as severe beatings.   

An armed anti-government group occupied the police station by force from July 17 and 30 before surrendering, and the incident led to the death of three police officers.   The authorities published an ‘information note’ on 9 December stating that until that date four civilians had been found guilty of charges including hooliganism and were each handed one-year jail sentences in connexion with the assaults against journalists. In all five police officers were order to pay fines and a number of others were subject to disciplinary action. The Yerevan police chief, Ashot Karapetyan, was dismissed for failing to prevent violent attacks on protestors and journalists. Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan publicly apologised to the journalists affected and expressed his confidence that such incidents would never happen again.

However Ara Ghazaryan, a lawyer representing some of the journalists concerned, claims that police officers participated directly in some of the documented assaults against 23 members of the media, and directed the violent actions of the plainclothes assailants. The journalists were attacked, Ghazaryan asserts, simply because they were journalists and for the purpose of preventing them from providing coverage – including live coverage -- of the violent police actions against demonstrators. The lawyer  insists that Armenia must fulfil its positive obligations, in accordance with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, by carrying out effective and independent investigations to establish the identity of the perpetrators of any crimes, bring them to justice and ensure appropriate punishment.  

Human Rights Watch has quoted eye witnesses as saying that the Karapetyan himself led the police charge against protestors in the area where journalists were also present. Armenian journalists’ and human rights organisations speak of deep-seated mistrust of the authorities because of impunity for past police abuse. Many cases of police violence against the media have, they say, been denied or dropped by the authorities without effective investigations. In particular, they complain that during a sit-in demonstration against electricity price increases in Yerevan in the summer of 2015 at least 13 journalists were reportedly assaulted by police, but demands for the officers concerned to be charged and brought to justice were not heeded. The Armenian Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression

www.khosq.am  claims it has records of more than 100 cases of physical assaults against journalists by police officers between 2008 and the middle of 2016, but that in that period only 2 cases reached the courts  for trial.  

According to the official Special Investigative Committee, charges have been brought against 8 persons in relation to last July’s incident, and in all 7 criminal cases have been forwarded to court for trial. However, the Special Investigative Committee has acknowledged that as many as 23 journalists were physically abused. Journalists’ representatives are calling for all 23 cases to be criminally investigated in order to press their allegation that they were attacked either by police officers or by unidentified persons acting under police instruction. They point out that the plain-clothed attackers acted in full view of the uniformed police officers and were not stopped from carrying out the assaults.  

As for compensation payments for media equipment that was damaged or seized, journalists and human rights groups insist it should be provided within the framework of criminal proceedings rather than ex gratia.   

 

Further information: A press freedom Alert about the events of 29 July 2016 was published on the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the safety of journalists on 30 July 2016; the response of the Armenian authorities was published there on 9 December 2016 – read more here:-

http://www.coe.int/en/web/media-freedom/all-alerts/-/soj/alert/18593685