Hasmik Smbatian

http://www.armenialiberty.org/content/ar ticle/2040318.html

Armenia -- Levon Avagian, the schoolteacher at the center of a sex
abuse scandal, speaks at the start of his trial, 26 April 2010.

A former teacher of a boarding school in Yerevan faced 18 months in
prison on Wednesday after admitting sexually and physically abusing
his students during his ongoing high-profile trial.

Levon Avagian pleaded guilty to corresponding criminal accusations
following months of strong denial of any improper conduct. As recently
as last summer, the Armenian police cleared Avagian of any wrongdoing
and tried to prosecute instead a civic activist who had helped to
trigger the sex abuse scandal.

Mariam Sukhudian, a leader of the environment protection group
SOS Teghut, worked, together with several other young people, as a
volunteer at the school for children with special needs in April-June
2008. They said afterwards that some schoolgirls alleged abuse at
the hands of Avagian.

Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls and alerted Armenian media
about her claims in late 2008. The school administration strongly
denied the allegations.

Sukhudian was subsequently charged with "false denunciation," a crime
punishable by up to five years in prison. But in early March, state
prosecutors ordered the police to drop the extremely controversial
charge and again turn their attention to Avagian.

The gray-haired teacher, who left the school located in Yerevan's
southern Nubarashen suburb last year, was subsequently accused of
committing "obscene acts against minors" accompanied by violence and
intimidation. He insisted on his innocence at the start of the trial
on April 26.

In a dramatic about-face, Avagian on Wednesday declared that he admits
his guilt and asked a Yerevan district court to continue the trial
under a so-called "accelerated procedure" that does not involve a
public questioning of witnesses and victims. Both the presiding judge
and the trial prosecutor accepted the request despite protests from
five former students who testified against Avagian.

The alleged victims argued that they planned to add new abuse claims
to their pre-trial testimonies, which could lead to the toughening of
the charges leveled against their former teacher. "When we studied
at the Nubarashen school, Mr. Avagian would also beat children. The
investigators did not ask us questions about that," one of them,
Hasmik Sinanian, told the court.

The prosecutor, Karen Batikian, likewise accused Avagian of routinely
ill-treating and bullying his underage students with methods
"characteristic of feudal systems." Batikian demanded a 18-month
prison sentence for the defendant.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian service afterwards, Sinanian criticized
the punishment sought by the prosecutor as "too mild." "I think that's
enough," disagreed another victim, Diana Amirkhanian.

The Nubarashen scandal has raised more questions about Armenia's
boarding schools, which are primarily supposed to educate orphans
and disabled children. They have long been notorious for a lack of
transparency, poor sanitary conditions and ill-treatment of students.