By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenian opposition leaders said on Thursday that their next rally in Yerevan will go ahead on Friday, dismissing as “illegal” a government ban which has been upheld by a municipal court.
The court of first instance in the city’s central administrative district ruled on Wednesday that Mayor Yervand Zakharian’s decision not to sanction the protest, attributed to security concerns, was justified. Zakharian said the decision stems from Armenia’s new law on public gatherings.
“The mayor was guided by an order which came from the presidential office and made an illegal political decision,” said Albert Bazeyan, a senior member of the opposition Artarutyun alliance. “The court upheld it for the same reasons.”
Bazeyan and other opposition leaders claimed that the law in question contradicts Armenia’s constitution and European conventions which guarantee freedom of assembly. Restrictions on that freedom contained in the law have been criticized by experts from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The mayor’s office made the decision in response to a written notification filed by several opposition lawmakers, evoking a legal clause which bans public gatherings in cases whether the authorities feel that “citizens’ life or health” would be in danger. It said city prosecutors have warned that the Friday demonstration could be marred by violence like some of the previous unsanctioned street protests. The prosecutors did not elaborate on their fears in the court, though.
Opposition representatives scoffed at the authorities’ arguments. “By the same token, [President Robert] Kocharian must be banned from visiting and listening jazz at the Aragast café [in Yerevan] because his bodyguard killed a person there,” said Ruzan Khachatrian, an Artarutyun spokeswoman.
In a separate joint statement, Artarutyun and its opposition allies, the National Unity and Communist parties, pledged to continue the “wave of popular struggle” aimed at forcing Kocharian to step down. They accused the authorities of continuing “repressions” against opposition activists and supporters, in reference to their criminal prosecution and brief “administrative detentions.”
One of those activists arrested about two months ago, Suren Sureniants, was released late Wednesday but may still face trial on charges of calling for a coup d’etat and offending government officials. The oppositionist has denied the charges.
Sureniants’s release was welcomed by Vladimir Pryakhin, head of the OSCE office in Yerevan. Speaking to RFE/RL, Pryakhin expressed hope that the move will facilitate a dialogue between the government and the opposition, strongly encouraged by the international community. He also called for the release of other people kept in jail for their role in the opposition campaign.
Sureniants is the third senior member of Artarutyun to be set free in recent weeks. A dozen opposition activists, including former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, remain in custody on similar criminal charges, while three others have already been sentenced to between 9 and 18 months’ imprisonment.
(Photolur photo: Suren Sureniants.)