By Nane Atshemian
An ultranationalist Armenian politician who called for the expulsion of all Jews from the country went on trial on Thursday nearly two months after his arrest and prosecution.
Armen Avetisian, who leads a small party called the Armenian Aryan Union, could face up to six years in prison if convicted of inciting intolerance towards not only Jews but also Kurds in a series of interviews with Armenian newspapers and television stations.
His arrest came shortly after he told one of the papers, “Iravunk,” that there are as many as 50,000 “disguised” Jews in Armenia and that he will strive to ensure that they are identified and expelled from the country.
Avetisian pleaded not guilty to the accusations, saying that he did not intend to insult an entire ethnic group. “I did not and will not disseminate hatred toward any ethnic group,” he told a district court in Yerevan. He claimed that his comments were addressed to Zionism which he described as an “anti-Armenian” ideology.
The first day of the hearings saw cross-examination of journalists who interviewed Avetisian over the past several months. One of them, Avetis Babajanian of the “Haykakan Zhamanak,” told the presiding judge that he believes the politician did not refer to most ordinary members of Armenia’s tiny Jewish community and should therefore not be imprisoned.
Babajanian gave markedly different testimony during the pre-trial investigation, essentially endorsing the prosecution’s case.
Another witness, Piruza Meliksetian of “Iravunk,” confirmed that Avetisian told her that “the future of any country with a Jewish community is in danger” and blamed the world Jewry for the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
Representatives of the Jewish community were absent from the courtroom packed with Avetisian supporters and reporters covering the trial.
“We didn’t go to the trial today because we didn’t want to once again feel humiliated and insulted,” the community leader, Rimma Varzhapetian told RFE/RL. “Besides, I don’t think our physical and moral security would have been guaranteed there.”
The Armenian Jews have grown seriously worried over the past year about increased manifestations of anti-Semitism, a problem virtually non-existent in Armenia in the past. Avetisian’s discourse is a key factor behind their concerns.
While welcoming his prosecution, Varzhapetian said that it alone will not address the problem. “I think that it will be a kind of show trial,” she said. “I also think that the trial will not end badly for Armen Avetisian. Having said that, it will be a lesson for many people.”
“In any case, he does deserve punishment,” she added. “Let the court to decide what kind of punishment.”
(Photolur photo: Avetisian pictured in the dock.)