By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Vagharshak Harutiunian, Armenia’s former defense minister and prominent oppositionist, was released from jail late on Friday after spending two months under arrest on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.
The head of the investigations department at Armenia’s Office of Prosecutor-General, Andranik Mirzoyan, told RFE/RL that Harutiunian was set free because he did not impede the ongoing criminal inquiry into his political activities. Mirzoyan said that the charges levelled against the ex-minister have not been dropped, meaning that he may still face trial.
The move followed more calls for Harutiunian’s release voiced by the head of the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin said earlier in the day that the criminal case against him is “weak.”
“We sincerely hope that in the very near future our conversations and efforts by other individuals involved in this matter…will yield practical results and Mr. Harutiunian will be freed,” Pryakhin told RFE/RL.
A senior member of the Artarutyun alliance, Harutiunian was among over a dozen opposition activists arrested last April on charges of calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order” and insulting senior government officials. The arrests came at the height of an opposition campaign of demonstrations aimed at forcing President Robert Kocharian’s resignation.
“We do support enforcement of the law, but in this case the accusations are quite weak because the suspect’s alleged crimes have not been properly specified,” Pryakhin said, adding that he has repeatedly raised the issue with Armenian prosecutors.
Harutiunian’s defense attorney, Robert Grigorian, argued that the prosecutors have still not elaborated on their accusations. “They must specify which speeches by Vagharshak Harutiunian had at what rally, which parts of them are deemed an insult against government officials and which of his actions were aimed at a violent seizure of power,” he said.
Harutiunian did not speak at any of the anti-Kocharian rallies held by Artarutyun and the allied National Unity Party this year. The Office of Prosecutor-General has declined a comment. Officials there said only that “investigative actions” pertaining to the case continue.
Several other arrested members of Artarutyun have also been set free. But criminal cases are still pending against some of them. Ignoring domestic and international criticism, the authorities have also sentenced five other, lower-level opposition activists to between 9 and 18 months in prison. The harshest of the sentences was passed on Edgar Arakelian, a 24-year-old man who hurled a plastic bottle at a police officer during the violent break-up of the April 12-13 demonstration in Yerevan. Three other oppositionists received suspended jail terms.
All of the individuals who have faced criminal prosecution in connection with the opposition protests have been declared “political prisoners” by a coalition of several Armenian civic groups. They have held daily pickets outside the Prosecutor’s Office in Yerevan for almost a month to condemn the “repressions.” Their leaders claimed on Friday to have collected more than 7,700 signatures in support of the detainees. They pledged to continue the action.
The harsh treatment of the oppositionists contrasts with what is widely seen as leniency shown by the Armenian authorities towards two confessed participants of an April 5 attack on journalists covering another opposition protest in Yerevan. They were fined 100,000 drams ($182) each for beating journalists and smashing their cameras that caught them trying to disrupt the protest. The court ruling was criticized by politicians from both rival camps.
“The punishment should have been stricter so that we have no such phenomena in the future,” said Tigran Torosian, the deputy speaker of parliament.
His opposition colleague Victor Dallakian went farther, accusing the authorities of encouraging more violence against journalists. “They were given the green light to carry out any violence and avoid any responsibility,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Vagharshak Harutiunian.)