By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Edgar Arakelian, an Armenian opposition activist jailed for 1 ½ years for hurling a plastic bottle at a policeman, was set free on Monday after serving only one third of his prison sentence condemned by human rights groups. It also emerged that another oppositionist who got the same jail term after actively participating in last spring’s anti-government protests was likewise freed last week.
The early releases sanctioned by courts were recommended by prison authorities that cited their “good behavior” during the almost five-month imprisonment. Armenian law provides for such individual amnesties.
Arakelian, 24, was taken to a district court in central Yerevan and grinned as he heard news of his release announced by a judge. The latter argued that he “diligently” complied with the prison order, is “positively characterized” by prison guards and now “stands on the path of correction.”
“I didn’t expect this, but am grateful,” Arakelian told reporters in the courtroom. He also reiterated his belief that his draconian imprisonment was unjust. “In my view, all Armenia knows well whether or not I am guilty,” he said.
The claims of innocence were echoed by his mother, Adelina Aleksanian, later in the day. “I had completely lost hope to see my boy back soon,” she told RFE/RL, sobbing. “He is not a criminal, and he did not deserve to suffer so much.”
A resident of a small town north of Yerevan, Arakelian is affiliated with the opposition People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK). He was videotaped hitting a senior police officer with an empty bottle of mineral water during the violent break-up of an opposition demonstration in Yerevan early on April 13. He says he did so after being hit hard by another policeman.
Arakelian was convicted of assaulting “a state official performing their duties” by the court of first instance in Yerevan’s central Kentron district. His appeals were twice rejected by two higher-level courts, most recently on August 13.
A similar fate awaited Lavrenti Kirakosian, an opposition activist from a village in the southern Armavir region. He was initially arrested and sentenced to 10 days in prison for attending opposition rallies in Yerevan last April.
On April 21, just hours before he was due to be released, police searched Kirakosian’s house in the village of Karakert and claimed to have found 59 grams of marijuana there. His pregnant wife had a miscarriage shortly afterward.
The oppositionist and his family insist that the light drug, illegal in Armenia, was planted by the police. But a local court dismissed the protests, sentencing him to 18 months’ imprisonment.
Kirakosian struck an uncompromising note on Monday, saying that he will press his case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “Why should I be happy? My arrest was groundless and I spent four months and 22 days in prison for nothing,” he told RFE/RL from Karakert.
“My two cows, two calves have and more than two dozen pigs have died,” the 44-year-old farmer added. “There was no one to look after them. My wife was busy fighting for my release in Yerevan.”
A total of six oppositionists that have faced criminal prosecution for their involvement in the opposition bid to oust President Robert Kocharian. The prison sentences handed down to the four others ranged from 9 to 15 months. They have all been declared political prisoners by the Armenian opposition and local human rights groups.
In a related development, state prosecutors last week dropped similar criminal charges against another opposition activist who underwent urgent surgery in April after an apparently brutal interrogation at a police station in the southern town of Artashat.
This decision as well as the earlier-than-expected releases of Arakelian and Kirakosian comes ahead of the autumn session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The PACE strongly criticized the Armenian authorities’ crackdown on the opposition last spring, threatening to impose political sanctions on Yerevan. The issue could be included on the agenda of its upcoming session which begins on October 4.
(Photolur photo: Edgar Arakelian pictured in the court on Monday.)