By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian opposition reported on Tuesday renewed “administrative” detentions and imprisonments of its activists ahead of the resumption of its anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan.
Dustrik Mkhitarian of the Artarutyun alliance told RFE/RL that eight activists in Yerevan and other parts of the country have been arrested since Monday for allegedly disrupting public order or “insulting” police officers. She said five of them were sentenced to between five and ten days in prison while the others were fined and set free. She added that another oppositionist, the leader of an Artarutyun chapter in the nearby town of Abovian, was detained and being questioned by the local police as of Tuesday afternoon.
Arrests were also reported by the opposition National Unity Party (AMK), Artarutyun’s top ally in the two-month campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation. AMK leader Artashes Geghamian said two of his activists in the central town of Gavar got five-day and ten-day jail terms under the Soviet-era Administrative Code after publicly informing local people about his visit to the area due on Wednesday.
The reported arrests come in advance of yet another unsanctioned rally which Artarutyun and the AMK plan to hold on Friday following a two-week pause. Leaders of the two opposition groups pledged on May 21 to stage “permanent” anti-Kocharian rallies from June 4. They also said they will “rethink” their tactics to pull larger crowds in the capital.
The upcoming rally was formally banned by the Yerevan municipality on Tuesday in response to a written notification from several opposition leaders. A written reply signed by an aide to Mayor Yervand Zakharian pointed to the ongoing criminal investigation into the opposition drive for regime change. It also cited a clause in the new Armenian law on rallies which bans public gatherings in cases where they “jeopardize citizens’ life or health.”
The law was enacted last month over serious objections voiced by legal experts from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They believe that it fails to meet European standards to which Armenia has committed itself.
The opposition said it will challenge Zakharian’s decision in the court and will press ahead with the rally regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
More than a hundred people have been subjected to administrative detentions, mainly in closed trials and without access to lawyers, over the past two months. Most of them were ordinary participants of the opposition demonstrations. Hundreds of other opposition supporters faced similar punishment during and in the wake of last year’s presidential election.
The authorities’ controversial enforcement of the Administrative Code has prompted strong protests from prominent international human rights organizations. In its April 28 resolution on the political crisis in Armenia, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) urged the authorities to “immediately end the practice.” Human Rights Watch similarly said in a May 4 report that Yerevan should “cease using arrest as a means of pressuring the opposition.”
In a related development, the head of the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reiterated on Tuesday his calls for the release of more than a dozen opposition leaders and activists who face criminal charges stemming from the opposition push for power. “I think that the release of those individuals would create necessary prerequisites for ending the political deadlock in which the opposition is refusing to engage in a constructive dialogue with the government,” Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin told RFE/RL.
Pryakhin was particularly concerned about the fate of the most prominent of the detainees, former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian. “Vagharshak Harutiunian could not have done something for which he could be sentenced to between 10 and 15 years’ imprisonment,” he said.
Harutiunian and another senior member of Artarutyun, Suren Sureniants, are being prosecuted for allegedly calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order,” a charge they both deny. Sureniants spent several days on hunger strike in his prison cell last month to demand the release of all “political prisoners.” His defense lawyer, Robert Grigorian, told RFE/RL that state prosecutors have asked a court in Yerevan to prolong his pre-trial detention by two more months.