By Ruzanna Stepanian
More than a dozen non-governmental organizations and prominent public figures issued on Thursday an emotional appeal to Armenian courts urging them to stop imprisoning opposition activists on “trumped-up charges” brought by the government.
In a joint open letter, they warned of the Armenian judiciary’s transformation into “an instrument of repression and an executioner of freedom.”
“Do not keep silent, your position has a fateful significance today,” reads the letter addressed to the judges. “Raise your voice, use all possible levers to stop this criminal course.”
“We simply risk failing to become a free country,” the signatories said. “We have already lived in an unjust and brutal country. Will we ever learn to draw lessons from the past?”
The joint call followed Tuesday’s decision by a court in the southern Armavir region to sentence a local opposition activist to 18 months in prison on a dubious drug charge widely attributed to his participation in the recent opposition campaign against President Robert Kocharian. Lavrenti Kirakosian, mentioned in the statement, thus became the sixth oppositionist to face criminal prosecution and imprisonment since the start of the campaign three months ago.
In all such cases, the judges, who are appointed and can be fired by Kocharian, fully endorsed the charges leveled by state prosecutors. Armenian courts have also routinely rubber-stamped shorter “administrative arrests” of more than a hundred other individuals who took part in the unsanctioned opposition protests.
Among the signatories of the letter was Hranush Kharatian, a respected sociologist and the head of the Armenian government’s Department on Ethnic Minorities and Religion. “I do agree that people are sometimes arrested on not only unsubstantiated but also fabricated charges,” she told RFE/RL, singling out the cases against Kirakosian and a 24-year-old oppositionist who got a 18-month jail term for hitting a police officer with a plastic bottle.
“Why should a young man spend 1.5 years in prison for somehow expressing his political beliefs?” Kharatian asked.
Another signatory, Izabella Sargsian of a group called Youth for Democracy, also condemned the politically charged prosecutions. “The judges must defy the state machine,” she said. “That should mean handing down just and humane verdicts or resigning from their posts.”
The Armenian authorities have denied any political motives behind the punishment of the opposition activists. They also say that the opposition drive for regime change is unconstitutional and amounts to an attempt at coup d’etat.
Human rights advocates, however, insist that the government crackdown on the opposition runs counter to Armenia’s constitution and international obligations. According to Natalia Martirosian, head of the Armenian Committee of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, the judges not only carry out government orders and but make unfair decisions of their own. “The overall atmosphere is such that officials want to take actions that will please more high-level individuals,” she said. “This is even more dangerous than carrying out direct orders.”