By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian authorities have jailed yet another opposition activist on controversial criminal charges which opposition leaders and human rights activists view as being part of their efforts to stave off further popular protests against their rule.
A court in the southern town of Armavir sentenced late Tuesday a resident of the nearby village of Karakert, Lavrenti Kirakosian, to 18 months in prison for allegedly possessing 59 grams of marijuana. Police claim to have found it during a search conducted in his house on April 21.
Kirakosian, who heads a regional branch of the National Democratic Union (AZhM), a major opposition party, has strongly denied the accusation, insisting that he has never used any drugs. Members of his family say the packet of marijuana was illegally “planted” by local law-enforcement officials during the search. Two of his neighbors have reportedly claimed that the latter forced them to sign a statement saying they witnessed the find.
Kirakosian was first detained during an opposition sit-in in downtown Yerevan on April 10 and jailed for 10 days for “defying police orders” and “disrupting public order.” The Armavir police decided to search Kirakosian’s house just hours before he was due to be set free, saying they suspect him of illegal weapons possession. But it was the light drug, rather than firearms, that turned up as a result. The 44-year-old oppositionist remained in detention and went on trial one week ago.
Kirakosian’s defense lawyer, Vartan Zurnachian, dismissed the harsh as verdict as politically motivated and said he will appeal it. The leaders of the AZhM and other parties making up the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) have also denounced the prosecution, saying that it is part of a broader crackdown on dissent unleashed by President Robert Kocharian in late March.
“As soon as you look into this case you see that it was fabricated for a political persecution,” agreed Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee (HKK), a human rights group. “It was a trial of the people, not just Lavrenti Kirakosian.”
Kirakosian is no stranger to politically charged arrests, having spent some time in prison even under Armenia’s previous President Levon Ter-Petrosian who too was at loggerheads with the AZhM. He was briefly jailed under the Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offences for attending opposition demonstrations during last year’s presidential race. He filed an appeal afterward against the “administrative arrest” to the European Court of Human Rights. Ishkhanian said he believes that was one of the reasons why the Armenian authorities got so tough with the AZhM activist this time around.
Kirakosian is the sixth opposition activist to have faced criminal prosecution and received a relatively long jail term since the start of the Artarutyun-led campaign for Kocharian’s resignation three months ago. One of them likewise got 18 months recently for hurling a plastic bottle at a police officer during the brutal dispersal of the April 12-13 opposition rally in Yerevan. Four other Artarutyun members were sentenced to between 9 and 15 months’ imprisonment for clashing with plainclothes police that tried to disrupt an opposition protest in Gyumri in late March.
Courts have also passed suspended jail sentences on three oppositionists, and criminal cases are still pending against two others. One of them, Grisha Virabian, had one of his testicles amputated on April 24 after several hours of what he describes as sadistic interrogation by police in another southern town, Artashat. Virabian is prosecuted for hitting one of the interrogators with a mobile phone recharging device.
In addition, the Armenian authorities arrested several more high-level oppositionists, including former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, and charged them with plotting a coup d’etat. All of them were set free by mid-June, in a move widely linked with the current session in Strasbourg of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In a resolution adopted on April 28, the PACE demanded the release of all individuals jailed in connection with the opposition campaign for regime change.
Kocharian was expected to tell assembly on Wednesday that his administration has complied with the resolution. But his political foes claim the opposite, pointing to the continuing prosecution of their supporters.
Ishkhanian, for his part, suggested that the authorities have released all opposition leader but are keeping rank-and-file activists in jail in order to “intimidate” ordinary Armenians. “The people are thus being told that it is they, not the opposition leaders, who will end up in jail if they attend further demonstrations,” he told RFE/RL.
Ishkhanian’s Helsinki Committee is one five Armenian civic groups that formed a “rapid reaction group” to cope with what they see as an alarming deterioration of the situation with human rights in the country in recent months.
“We have witnessed demonstrative human rights abuses characteristic of a dictatorial regime,” said Vartan Harutiunian, another prominent member of the umbrella structure who spent eight years in Soviet labor camps as a political prisoner. “There are things which I didn't see even in Soviet times.”
(A1+ photo: Lavrenti Kirakosian.)