Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Controversial novel arrives in Moscow and Yerevan; Author Terry Phillips breaks 75-year taboo

Murder at the Altar is the first book to scrutinize the violent schism of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which remains split to this very day. Author Terry Phillips will be in Russia and Armenia from March 26 until April 4 to talk about this still-controversial theme.

The historical novel centers on the death of Archbishop Ghevont Tourian. The Prelate was killed at Holy Cross Church in New York City on December 24, 1933 as he began Christmas Eve Sunday morning services. His gruesome homicide shattered the Armenian community and shocked the conscience.

The Tourian assassination was front-page news when it happened. It remained a taboo subject for 75 years. For the first time since then, author Phillips has examined all the available evidence and presents a vivid, fact-based account in novel form. has examined all the available evidence and presents a vivid, fact-based account in novel form.

Murder at the Altar might more accurately be called “dramatized history.” The book interweaves past and present versions of these complex events. Much of the text is drawn from interviews with survivors, court transcripts and newly declassified FBI files. There are actual news clips as well as some previously unpublished photos available to further illustrate the story.

“This act of violence became a touchstone for intra-ethnic conflict among Armenians in America,” says Phillips. “But the story is also a poignant example of the tensions and contradictions created by the Cold War, some of which lingered long after the USSR dissolved.”

Phillips sees the case as a metaphor for other such conflicts, calling them “universal human tragedies.”

About the Author

Terry Phillips is a veteran war correspondent. He was one of the first American reporters to live and work in Armenia following the 1988 earthquake, and to cover the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

During the 1990s, Phillips reported major stories for CBS, NPR, and NBC News. He traveled throughout the Soviet Union, as well as Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Among his other international datelines are Baghdad, Kabul, Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Port-au-Prince. He is now the moderator for “Quality of Life” – a popular interview/call-in program based in California and heard on National Public Radio stations.

The author will be available for in-person interviews in Moscow and Yerevan from March 26 until April 4.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Arkady Ghukasian Gets Diplomatic Post in Armenia

Tuesday March 17, 2009

Arkady Ghukasian, the former president of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been appointed to Armenia's diplomatic service as ambassador-at-large, President Serzh Sarkisian's office said on Tuesday.

In a short statement, it said a relevant decree signed by Sarkisian also granted Ghukasian the diplomatic rank of ambassador. The statement did not specify his concrete areas of responsibility or say whether he will be involved in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh.

A spokesman for Sarkisian also could not clarify that when contacted by RFE/RL. Samvel Farmanian only cited an Armenian law on diplomatic service which tasks ambassadors-at-large with “solving certain issues” in the country's foreign relations.

Ghukasian, 51, served as president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from 1997 and 2007. The former journalist decided not to seek a third term office before handing over power to his favored successor, Bako Sahakian, in September 2007.

In a 2006 interview with RFE/RL, Ghukasian said that he will not follow the example of other prominent Karabakh Armenians like Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian and continue his political activities in Armenia.

Arkady Ghukasyan appointed Armenia's Ambassador-at-Large

President Serzh Sargsyan signed a decree on appointing Arkady Ghukasyan Ambassador-at-Large and bestowing him the rank of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Armenia, reported Public Radio according to President's Press Office reported.


Serzh is making a huge mistake, though it will not be his first. This appointment to a guy that does not know what to say and not to say will bite him later on, mark my words.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tufenkian Foundation Crisis Relief Initiative

Rick Barry
Tufenkian Foundation
212.475.2475 x384


Tufenkian Foundation sets up emergency fund for neediest cases

Dear Friends,

The new economic chaos in the world has already caused rising poverty in Armenia. Our staff now regularly reports shocking situations where people lack decent shelter, are unable to make utility payments, or can’t meet basic food and health needs. Due to rising prices and growing unemployment, the TF-supported Zankagatun NGO is now flooded with urgent calls for help as alcoholism, abandonment, and starvation spread.

Just two weeks ago, our staff met a woman named Armine. Unemployment had driven her husband to alcoholism, which led to abuse. She fled with two young children and began living in a barn. While trying to work, Armine left her five-year-old alone each day to care for her two-year-old. The only food Armine could afford was sweetened water, so both children quickly reached advanced stages of malnutrition. What little money she had scraped together cleaning neighbors’ toilets was not enough to avoid being evicted from the barn.

Cases like Armine's are no longer rare. Families that used to be able to afford the bare minimum are now often left in the streets. To make matters worse, Armenia’s government is denying how bad the problem is—so far, they have largely ignored or covered up, rather than risk admitting any failure to protect the people. At this point, most emergency protection is coming from NGOs and informal support networks.

With this in mind, the Tufenkian Foundation has set up an emergency fund for the neediest cases. The fund will disburse small amounts for occasional help to people with terrible problems. Amounts can vary from $30 for a utility payment, to $100 to repair someone’s roof, to $300 for emergency health care.

To kick things off, James Tufenkian has contributed $25,000 over and above the larger funds he gives toward our budget each year. We hope that you, our friends and supporters, will collectively match and surpass James’s contribution, offering the direct assistance that will help keep Armenians on their feet until this crisis subsides.

Checks marked as being for the Emergency Relief Fund can be made payable to the Tufenkian Foundation, 20 Capitol Drive, Moonachie, NJ 07074.

All donations are tax-deductable, and every dollar of your support, without exception, will go directly to Armenia’s neediest. The Tufenkian Foundation’s existing staff and resources will make sure this is done, and fast.

Thank you all for your continuing support. We appreciate it, and never more than right now.


Antranig Kasbarian
Director of Development

PFA Issues a Statement on the Dram Devaluation in Armenia


The decision of the Central Bank of Armenia (CBA) to return to a de facto free floating exchange rate regime, announced on March 3, 2009, has led to a swift reaction from economic agents. Within minutes of the announcement, some stores in Yerevan were closed, prices across a wide range of products were adjusted, and the buy-sell margins for dollar trading by banks ballooned. Following the initial reaction, at present the risk of escalation appears to have been contained.

In its December 2008 Report, Policy Forum Armenia (PFA) warned about the serious build-up of external economic/financial pressures and proposed a gradual depreciation of the Dram as a key element of government’s response strategy. While adopting measures along the lines of some recommendations, this and other key elements contained in the proposal were not followed or countered by alternative measures. What may have been a judgment call regarding the depth and the duration of the global crisis (and by extension also of the factors influencing Armenia’s economy), should have been weighed carefully against the potential impact of the delayed response and should have been reversed early on.

Further attempts to use administrative measures to control either exchange rate or prices (or both) amid continued external pressures will prove ineffective and should be avoided given the potential for overshooting of the uncontrolled variable. Expectations of further devaluation (and/or inflation) could reduce the demand for real money balances beyond the decline in the real supply of money being observed at the moment. Depending on the stance of the CBA, this may either result in further loss of reserves or in further devaluation of the Dram. This could have devastating consequences for the domestic economy but also for Armenia’s already embattled current account.

Under these circumstances, re-gaining policy credibility and properly managing public’s expectations should be the cornerstones of the strategy going forward. To this end, CBA should be candid about the policy trade-off it was facing since the Fall of 2008 and about any errors of judgment that may have made the current outcome inevitable. It may not be easy to build trust now, but to continue to lose it at this juncture may prove dangerous. It is in every sensible citizen’s interest to stabilize the situation in Armenia and the authorities should capitalize on this premise and come off as transparent and forward-looking as possible. This will help rebuild confidence and trust in policy management. Only with mutual trust, and if united in their effort, will the government and society overcome this and future turbulence and move toward stability.

Included in these confidence-building measures are some structural policy initiatives outlined in PFA’s December 2008 Report. Chief among them were: (1) the establishment of a crisis management team consisting of experienced economists and finance experts independent of their political affiliations and views; (2) undertaking credible measures to reduce the monopoly price-setting powers of key import companies; and (3) taking swift measures to reduce some well-known barriers to doing business.

Without credibility, the traditional policy instruments will have a limited impact on the situation and some are likely to come at higher-than-expected costs. A monetary tightening could reduce the pressure on reserves and help dampen inflationary expectations. However, if not accompanied with sufficient public buy-in, this will not have the desired effect on the public’s willingness to hold local currency, and in the meantime will suppress economic activity. Credibility will also be important for the effectiveness of the fiscal policy response, where targeted social spending will be critical for reducing the negative consequences of the devaluation on low income families and of the level of discontent and potential for political instability.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Need for Justice: Fair hearings crucial for public trust, but so far lacking

By Gayane Abrahamyan
ArmeniaNow reporter
Published: 01 March, 2009

On these March days a year ago Yerevan police departments were jammed by the rounding up of political rally demonstrators and, generally, those sympathetic to Armenia’s opposition. After March 1 some 5,000 were detained and about 500 held for 72 hours or more in what was broadly seen as a “witch hunt”.

In the coming days 142 would be charged with criminal cases from which 35 would be dropped due to lack of evidence. Today 60 remain imprisoned and 10 – including the “Case of 7” are in court.

“Seven out of every 10 of those brought to police, detained and arrested, have undergone violent treatment and tortures, with no forensic examination in most of the cases,” said Armen Khachatryan, coordinator of the Center for Legal Support to Political Prisoners.

Armenia’s Ombudsman Armen Harutyunyan said several months ago: “The court trial of the March events is a touchstone for the court system of the Republic of Armenia, and the Case of the Seven will be the litmus paper for the whole chain.”

How Bloody Saturday unfolded. Click here for a timeline of events.“Obviously there are cases that won’t stand the trial at the Strasburg Court. More than 19 people were sentenced based on the evidence from the police officers alone. There has been no aggrieved party in many cases and many witnesses have refused to give evidence,” the ombudsman said.

Charges brought against former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Arzumanyan, National Assembly members Hakob Hakobyan, Sasun Mikayelyan, and Myasnik Malkhasyan, former mayor of Abovyan Grigor Voskerchyan, members of the Armenian All-National Movement Suren Sirunyan and Shant Harutyunyan are based on part 3 of Article 225 (“organization of mass disorders accompanied with murders”) and part 1 of Article 300 (“for forceful usurpation of state power”) of the Criminal Code of Armenia that provide 6 to 15 years of imprisonment.

Attached to the “Case of 7” are charges implicating the accused in the deaths of the 10 who died as a result of March 1 violence.

Vahagn Harutyunyan, senior coroner at Special Investigation Service, recently announced at the RA National Assembly that they had not directly committed murders, however, “they were supposed to foresee and prevent the murders.” (The charges include those who were determined to have been killed by police, apparently through the misuse of special-issue riot guns. See "They Mock our Dead")

What really happened and who bears the blame of March 1 remains undetermined, lost in contradictions.

In March, 2008 the Prosecutor General Office insisted that no weapons had been fired on civilians. A couple months later, however, information about the use of the ‘Cheryomukha 7’ riot weapon was revealed.

In April, police denied that snipers had been planted around the perimeter of the violence, but six months later an investigation committee discovered that snipers had been deployed.

It remains unknown whether any of the 10 deaths were the work of snipers, still the seven political figures at trial bear the burden of even those deaths. (See Trial and Error?)

Revelations from Armenia’s worst civil uprising still come in as trials unfold, but monitoring bodies – including the Ombudsman’s Office and the OSCE – refuse to gives assessments of the proceedings until all cases have been resolved.

Civil rights activist Mikayel Danielyan, President of the Helsinki Association, categorically states that even without reports the major part of the court cases are groundless.

“It’s hard to point to a case, when substantial proofs have been submitted. The controversial evidence of the witnesses sometimes turns into mockery. Any of the cases that reaches the European Court with such ungrounded proofs, will win,” Danielyan said.

The problem of evidence was a serious failure in the March 1 cases.

Many cases were grounded exceptionally on the evidence of the police, which the human rights defender called unacceptable:

“The PACE resolution clearly indicates the evidences of the police alone, in case of the lack of others, are not trustworthy, as the clashes have been between the police and the public, whereas many people were tried in such conditions,” Ombudsman Harutyunyan said.

Witnesses have also testified that evidence was gathered by force and intimidation.

One person called for testimony wrote a letter to court asking that the testimony be stricken because he/she (the witness identity is being protected) gave false testimony against Myasnik Malkhasyan after being beaten.

“I wrote down my evidence under dictation, and by force. I am still afraid of living in my apartment, because I am persecuted and I am confident they will take me to police again,” the letter states. “I have received serious injuries because of their beating.

Such cases are not unique. For instance, 9 of the 11 witnesses, who testified against the chairman of the Democratic Fatherland Party Petros Makeyan, publicly recanted their evidence in the court hall, explaining the evidence was brought under the dictation of the investigator, with the use of force and pressure. However, Makeyan was sentenced to three years in jail.

The most controversial case was that of Karen Hayrapetyan, who told to the court he had never written evidence, had never been questioned, had never seen the person against whom the evidence was written.

Twenty of Hayrapetyan’s co-villagers from Hartavan (near the town of Aparan), and the head of the village, signed a document stating that Hayrapetyan was in the village on March 1 and 2. But the court would insist, Hayrapetyan had been in Yerevan and had seen the fight in Opera Square.

On January 20 of this year Hayrapetyan was sentenced to a year in jail for recanting his evidence and lying to the court.

“This was done for just one thing – so that the rest of the witnesses dare not tell the truth,” said Hayrapetyan’s father Paruyr. (See Conscripted to Conceit)

The authorities have promised to solve the problem of political prisoners and to release them by making amendments in the laws before the April session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). But many here assert that the only solution to the ongoing crisis caused by the lingering and dubious court cases is an impartial investigation.

“The public today waits for a fair investigation. The biased and unjust investigation into the March tragedy will have the most serious consequences,” the ombudsman said. “Unjust trials, violation of rights and social injustice will result in other March 1s, whether of minor or large scale.”