By Ruzanna Stepanian
An opposition activist from a rural area in western Armenia went on trial Wednesday in yet another politically charged case which many of his fellow villagers see as a punishment for his active participation in opposition demonstrations in Yerevan.
Lavrenti Kirakosian, head of a local branch of the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) party, is facing up to three years in prison for allegedly keeping 59 grams of marijuana at his home in Karakert, a village in the Armavir region. He was initially detained during an opposition sit-in in downtown Yerevan and jailed for 10 days of under the Soviet-era Administrative Code.
On April 21, moments before the expiry of the arrest term, local police decided to search Kirakosian’s house, saying they suspect him of illegal arms possession. No weapons were found there, however. The police claimed to have found instead a hidden packet of marijuana and kept him in detention on relevant criminal charges.
The defendant strongly denies ever using any narcotics both during the investigation and at the opening session of his trial at a court in the town of Armavir. His family members say that the police themselves planted the light drug, banned in Armenia, during the search. Two of Kirakosian’s neighbors were quoted by the Armenianow.com online publication last week as saying they were forced by the to sign a search protocol.
The prosecutors deny any wrongdoing and say that a urine sample taken from Kirakosian after the search contained marijuana. But his defense lawyer, Vartan Zurnachian, dismissed this as a fraud, accusing the police of drugging his client against his will. He said Kirakosian felt unwell in custody after eating sandwiches given by police officers.
Kirakosian, 44, is one of about a dozen opposition activists who have faced trial since the start in early April of an opposition campaign of demonstrations aimed at forcing President Robert Kocharian to resign. They have all been described as “political prisoners’ by the opposition leaders and Armenian human rights groups. Five of them have been sentenced to between 9 and 18 months in prison on criminal charges.
Criminal cases are also pending against several other oppositionists. Among them is Grisha Virabian, a resident of the southern Ararat region who underwent urgent surgery on April 23 after a reportedly brutal police interrogation.
The case against Kirakosian appears to have provoked anger among many Karakert residents. Dozens of them traveled to Armavir to attend the trial. “They are punishing an innocent man,” one of them told RFE/RL. “The murderer of Poghos Poghosian is walking freely, while the man who thinks about the people is in jail,” he added, referring to a café patron beaten to death by at least one of Kocharian’s bodyguards in September 2001.
“They arrested Lavrenti to spread fear among people so that they don’t take part in the demonstrations,” said another man. “But we will keep going to the rallies until we get rid of this regime.”