By Lusine Grigorian
A human rights lawyer, who was controversially arrested last October after helping evicted residents of Yerevan sue the Armenian government, was unexpectedly released from a maximum-security prison late on Wednesday.
Vahe Grigorian was set free immediately after an appeals court ruled to put an end to his pre-trial detention. The Review Court struck down a lower court’s decision last week to allow the National Security Service (NSS) to keep him under arrest for two more months.
“To be honest, the Review Court ruling took me by surprise because the same court had twice upheld what I consider to be unfounded rulings handed down by the court of first instance,” Grigorian told RFE/RL on Thursday.
Grigorian was arrested and charged with defrauding clients and forging legal documents on October 7. The NSS has so far refused to publicize any proof of the accusations. Grigorian has strongly denied them, saying that the case was brought in retaliation for his strong advocacy of low-income families forcibly evicted from their homes as part of an government-sanctioned redevelopment going on in central Yerevan.
Hundreds of local residents have been forced to vacate their mostly decrepit houses over the past two years. Many are unhappy with the amount of compensation paid to them by the state, saying that it is well below the market value of their properties. Grigorian’s Right law firm helped several such families file lawsuits with the European Court of Human Rights last year.
It is not yet clear whether Wednesday’s verdict was a rare court setback for the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB or signals its intention to drop the charges. As things stand now, Grigorian, may still go on trial and again end up in jail. He has been described as a “political prisoner” by Armenia’s leading human rights groups
“I hope yesterday’s ruling was handed for purely legal considerations,” the lawyer said. “But it’s hard to tell what happened in reality.” He said he will continue to represent interests of the evicted residents in any case.
Grigorian asked the European Court of Human Rights last month to demand his liberation or at least ensure his unfettered communication with his defense counsels and clients allegedly defrauded by the Armenian government. He also protested against his relocation last December to the ex-KGB’s notorious basement jail in downtown Yerevan.
The Stalin-era facility is usually used for incarcerating individuals accused of murder, terrorism, high treason and other grave crimes.