Adolescent Street Beggars: Ringleader Appeals Seven Year Sentence

Ararat Davtyan

2009/06/ 08 | 19:04

"No, Gagik didn’t dangle me from their seventh story window to throw
me down. The window was merely open and he stood me in front. I can’t
say why. It was a good day. I gave him the money. Maybe he was angry
or something." This is what 13 year-old Abgar recounts. He attends
the Vardashen #1 boarding school. He’s been working as a beggar in
the service of 34 year-old Garik Hovhannisyan for quite some time.

Garik Hovhannisyan has been convicted twice before. Once for
"causing minor psychical injury with premeditation" and once for
"hooliganism". Besides Abgar, another group of adolescents worked
for him as beggars.

The lid on this story opened in the summer of last year when 14
year-old Aram, another boy at the school engaged in panhandling,
caught the attention of the police. He described the situation that
he and Abgar found themselves in. As a result, Garik Hovhannisyan
was arrested a few days later.

During the preliminary investigation the two boys stated that it
was through a mutual friend, Varuzhan that they met up with Garik
Hovhannisyan. It turns out that Mr. Hovhannisyan is Varuzhan’s
stepfather. Learning that the boys sometimes engaged in begging,
Garik began to force them to hand over their earnings to him so that
he could repair his car that he used as a taxi. This forced payment
took place during 2007-2008.

Shades of Oliver Twist in Armenia?

"I never wanted to go to school so I always cut classes. But I could
never go home because my mother would get mad and send me back. I’d
go to Garik’s house where they treated me well and never punished or
hit me.

Everything was fine. Garik would take me and Varuzhan to the downtown
district of the city where we’d beg for money. We’d give him what
we collected. Once, I collected about 20-25,000 drams. Garik was
overjoyed and bought me some good eats, grilled meats, etc. He was
very good to me. But if we’d collect less than 10,000 drams he’d
get upset. I was afraid of the scorpion tattoo on Garik’s body. I
was afraid that he’d throw me out of the house, that he’d get mad
and beat me. That’s why I panhandled for money and gave it to him,"
answered Aram in response to the investigator’s questions.

Abgar said that he stayed at Garik’s house for about twenty-five
days. Every day Garik would drive them to work, the intersection of
Amiryan and Abovyan Streets in Yerevan. He’d pick them up at around
12-1 latter that night. Abgar would hand over the daily proceeds of
10-15,000 drams directly to Garik or to Varuzhan.

"I handed money personally to Garik about 10 or 15 times. On those
occasions when I didn’t want to go out and beg, Garik would threaten
me. Once, when I told Garik that I would no longer beg for him he got
cross and hit me on my hands and back. I tried to escape but Garik
came after me in his car, shoved me in, and took me home. In June,
2008, I bought a 5,000 dram Nokia phone with the money I made from
begging but Garik took it from me. I asked him to give it back but
he told me to forget about it," Abgar recounts.

The preliminary examining body initially charged Garik Hovhannisyan
with "involving adolescents in anti-social behavior". Later on the
indictment was upgraded to read "involving two or more adolescents in
forced work or service or holding them in slave-like conditions". In
other words, Garik’s actions were categorized as labor trafficking
and now he was facing a sentence of 7-12 years imprisonment rather
than just 6.

The sentence is upgraded to trafficking

In a conversation with Hetq, Garik Hovhannisyan said, "Six
months later they changed the indictment and I was charged with
trafficking. Investigator Artur Avetisyan tried to trip me up by
saying, ‘look, Garik, now you are facing trafficking charges and the
court will come down on you’. I told him that he was wasting his time,"
Mr. Hovhannisyan told Hetq.

During the pre-trial examination it was learnt that other adolescents
also suffered at the hands of Garik Hovhannisyan. As a result, the
indictment was reassessed.

"The investigator rounded up this drunken bum and he came to visit me
in the detention center, to conduct a face-to-face interrogation. I
got angry and shoved the investigator. I flicked my cigarette into
the bum’s face and I left. I told him that I had nothing to say and
that he could write whatever he wanted," Mr. Hovhannisyan told Hetq.

The "drunken bum" described by Mr. Hovhannisyan is 16 year-old Igor,
a student at Nubarashen’s #18 Special School. 12 year-old Hamlet,
another student at the school, also testified at the preliminary
examination along with Igor

Igor testified that Garik proposed that the boys take up begging. In
return for handing over all the money to him, Garik promised the boys
that he’d look after them and let them sleep in his house. They worked
for him for about twenty days.

Garik demanded that the boys fork over at least 10,000 dram daily,
otherwise he’d threaten them and beat them a few times. The threats
were along the lines of, "If you don’t earn money for me I’ll shove
you into the trunk of my car, drive to the canyon and throw you over."

"Once, we had collected 4,000 drams. Garik beat me in the house,"
Igor wrote in his testimony. Hamlet added that Garik forced them to
beg for food in the Malatya market.

Garik Hovhannisyan’s lawyer, public defender Siranoush Harutyunyan,
presented a motion during the pre-trial examination requesting that
the criminal charges be dropped as there was no corpus deliciti.

"Garik Hovhannisyan is innocent of the initial charges and the
reassessed indictment because there was no criminal intent in engaging
in begging, obtaining a profit, etc. In essence, he didn’t involve
those boys in the acct of begging. Those boys were picked up off the
streets by various organizations for panhandling and loitering and
placed in boarding school.

Ringleader pleads innocence

As to the sums collected, Garik doesn’t deny the fact that he asked
the boys for money and that they lent it to him. He says he paid them
back. The boys don’t refute this in their testimony. The question
remains whether there was coercion involved. Did he beat them or
not? According to the public defender, Garik claims that nothing of
the sort happened. In her motion, Siranoush Harutyunyan stressed the
fact that panhandling is an anti-social act that cannot be viewed as
forced labor.

This motion and others of a similar nature made by the defense attorney
were rejected by the court as baseless. Varuzhan, Garik’s stepson,
was also included as an aggrieved party in the case. He didn’t testify
against his stepfather. The other boys followed Varuzhan’s cue and
renounced the incriminatory testimony they had previously given.

The court found Varuzhan’s testimony not to be credible. According
to the petitions presented by the parents of the other boys, the
adolescents were interrogated a second time. This time, they stood
by their previous testimony.

In a conversation with Hetq, Aram said that he had withdrawn his
testimony because Varuzhan and his mother, Lianoush Mirzoyan,
demanded that he do so. Abgar said that he pitied Garik and that’s
why he changed his story.

On April 2, 2009, Garik Hovhannisyan was sentenced to seven years
by the Kentron and Nork-Marash District Court. Mr. Hovhannisyan has
filed an appeal.

"If the Court of Appeals judges the case correctly I should be found
innocent since I do not regard my actions as criminal in nature,"
Garik Hovhannisyan claims with an air of confidence. "Everyone knows
that these boys are street kids who sell flowers and panhandle. They
are friends of Lianoush’s boy. They always used to visit our house. Am
I a child welfare officer who duty it is to send them to school? Or
am I a heartless person to throw them out onto the street? There was
a time that they ask me to drive them downtown or to pick them up in
the evenings. I did what they asked. Is there a crime in that? If so,
let them charge me for it and not for trafficking," Garik said.