As part of their investigation into yesterday’s assault of a leading human rights defender, the Armenian authorities should investigate the extent to which the victim’s human rights work was a motive for the attack, Human Rights Watch said today. Mikael Danielian, the Chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Association, was wounded by an air gun on May 21, 2008 in Yerevan, the country’s capital. Danielian was not seriously wounded.

“The circumstances of the attack on Mikael Danielian suggest that his prominence as a human rights defender was a motive,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given this, the Armenian authorities must consider it as part of a thorough and objective investigation into the attack.”

Danielian told Human Rights Watch that at approximately 3 p.m. on May 21, in the afternoon he was riding in a taxi in downtown Yerevan with two of his colleagues. When the taxi stopped at a traffic light, a car pulled up behind the taxi and started to vigorously honk. A young man, Tigran Urikhanian, the former leader of the Armenian Progressive Party, got out of the honking car and approached the taxi. When Urikhanian recognized Danielian, he began swearing at him and allegedly punched him through the open car window. Danielian then got out of the taxi and he and Urikhanian engaged in a serious argument. Danielian then claims that, without warning, Urikhanian shot him with an air gun that fires highly compressed air and is sometimes carried for self defense in Armenia and other countries. Danielian sustained light wounds on his chest and neck, and was treated for a sharp increase in his blood pressure by an ambulance arriving on the scene.

Artur Sakunts, another human rights defender who arrived a few minutes after the altercation began, told Human Rights Watch that he witnessed Urikhanian verbally assault Danielian, calling him a spy and a “shame to Armenia,” because of his human rights work. Sakunts also witnessed Urikhanian and another man slap Danielian in the face again.

Following the incident, Danielian was immediately taken to the central police station, where he gave a statement. The investigator in the case ordered a medical forensic examination of Danielian, which was carried out on May 22.

Armenia faced a serious political and human rights crisis after the presidential elections of February 19, 2008. Armenian police used excessive force and violence to disperse peaceful demonstrators on Freedom Square in Yerevan in the early hours of March 1, while a violent clash between protesters and security forces later that evening left at least 10 people dead, including two security officials.