By Emil Danielyan
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has demanded the immediate release of an Armenian human rights activist sentenced to ten days in prison for holding an unsanctioned rally in protest at an apparent arson attack on his office.
Artur Sakunts, head of the Vanadzor branch of the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly (HCA), was arrested and quickly jailed last Saturday after defying a police warning not to rally his supporters in the northern Armenian city.
“Artur Sakunts should be freed immediately and unconditionally,” Elizabeth Andersen, the Human Rights Watch director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement on Tuesday. “The arson attack on his office, and police abuse of their powers should be the focus of investigation -- not a man who is advocating for Armenian voters' rights.”
Local HCA activists, who reported serious irregularities during the elections, say unknown assailants threw a petrol bomb into the group’s Vanadzor office early on Friday. They blamed the attack on local authorities. The latter have so far avoided commenting on the accusations and Sakunts’s subsequent imprisonment.
“Sakunts is the first human rights defender to be arrested in the wave of arrests following the February 19 first round and March 5 runoff presidential elections,” the Western watchdog said. “Victims of arrests, intimidation and punitive job dismissals to date have been either members of the political opposition, their relatives, or bus drivers who ferried people to opposition rallies.”
The crackdown, denounced by several international organizations, was carried out in accordance with Armenia’s controversial Code of Administrative Misdemeanors. Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe regard the code as undemocratic and have urged the authorities stop its application.
“Armenian authorities use administrative detention to punish and intimidate demonstrators and political activists, and use it in more routine police work to circumvent due process guarantees for criminal suspects,” the HRW statement said.