Freelance journalist Vahagn Ghukasyan left Armenia and arrived three months ago in Germany, where he has requested political asylum. His case is now being considered by the German court. As the journalist wrote me recently, “In my petition I described the persecutions, illegalities and intimidations committed against me by the law enforcement agencies of Armenia and presented irrefutable facts and documents to this effect.”
In a group e-mail message that he sent out in January 2003, Ghukasyan explained, “The actions of the Armenian authorities lead me to believe that they have determined to physically or psychologically isolate me from society. In order to avoid reprisals, I have left Armenia. It is not my intention to hide or seek shelter in any country. As soon as I receive guarantees of my security and of my ability to do my job, I will come back to Armenia.” A week before this message went out, the Prosecutor’s Office had questioned Ghukasyan in connection to the December 28, 2002 assassination of Tigran Naghdalyan, the chairman of the Board of Directors of Armenian Public Television and Radio, and seized his personal computer. Most recently, Shahumyan district police officers went looking for Ghukasyan in his apartment last May, but he had already left the country.
In a letter he wrote five months ago, Vahagn Ghukasyan discussed the specifics of why he was being persecuted, and reiterated that he could not return to Armenia since his and family’s lives were in danger. The journalist had been investigating the October 27, 1999 terrorist attack in parliament, in which eight government officials were killed, including the prime minister and the speaker of parliament. His first article was printed in 1998, in the Oragir Daily. He wrote, “The events of October 27th were a huge blow, and although I disapproved of the policies of both Vazgen Sarkisyan and Karen Demirchyan policies, I believed that [the gunmen] had fired shots at me, at you, at everybody.” His subsequent findings were published in the daily newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak and in three separate brochures. Over the last three years, Ghukasyan had been subjected to anonymous threats and attacks. In 2001, the old bus he used as a workshop was set on fire. In early 2003, Ghukasyan appealed to different foreign embassies requesting political asylum.
“We journalists periodically receive pressure, threats, and phone calls, but we don’t leave Armenia,” I wrote him, and asked, “Did you think all that through before you took this step?” Ghukasyan responded, “I agree with that-if we take on this responsibility, then it’s better to be determined and fight without fearing the consequences. But in my case, I have to take both my anxiety and my obligations into consideration.”
In 1986, Vahagn Ghukasyan was arrested for theft and sentenced to four years in prison, taking the rap, he says, for a robbery his friends had committed. He spent two years and eight months in prison. “I won’t be able to take it psychologically if I go back to prison. That’s the anxiety I mentioned, why I don’t want to take even the smallest risk, and why I want to leave,” Ghukasyan wrote me, describing in detail his harsh years as a prisoner.
The obligation he mentioned is his family - his wife, three children and his mother. His mother now takes care of the whole family. It is his family, he says, that has forced him to leave Armenia “for a while”. Ghukasyan admits, “I’m afraid to stay in Armenia today-I’m not a coward but I think that any sane person should be afraid to touch an exposed wire with their bare hands.”
At the end of his letter, Ghukasyan wrote, “I made the very difficult decision to leave Armenia-of course not forever-since I really don’t see any other way. I was forced to, because my work over the last four years has become a real threat to my life. I mean my public coverage of the October 27th case. I want to say frankly that I don’t really think that I can be considered a journalist, but I got absorbed in the October 27th case, and came to possess information that makes some people very worried. Back in October 2002 I obtained important information (incontrovertible material evidence) which made all this very serious.
I am convinced that the National Security Ministry suspected that I have this evidence, which could expose them regarding one particular episode. In short, I have at my disposal incontrovertible material evidence that I will make public only after ensuring my own and my family’s safety. For now, I can only say that it is so serious that they found it necessary to protect themselves to some extent and, as a result, Tigran [Naghdalyan] was killed on December 28, 2002. Of course, they were just trying to cover one of the trails leading to the organizers, but it won’t help them because the time will come and I will prove what went on.”
If the German court accepts that Vahagn Ghukasyan was persecuted by the government for his reportage and grants him political asylum, it will be the first such case in the history of the third republic.
And Ghukasyan is hopeful: “At this moment I have numerous documents that are 100-percent sufficient for political asylum.”