By Ruzanna Stepanian
Lawyers, human rights activists and opposition politicians urged Thursday residents of downtown Yerevan facing eviction or already forced out of their homes to take fresh legal action against the government, citing a high court ruling that declared the process unconstitutional.
The Constitutional Court ruled on April 18 that a 2002 government decision that paved the way for the ongoing massive redevelopment in the city center and the resulting demolition of hundreds of old houses violated several articles of Armenia’s constitution. But it at the same time stopped short of obligating municipal authorities to give the properties back to their former owners.
The verdict is thus widely seen as giving the displaced residents, furious with modest compensation which they have received from the state, little more a moral victory. Some constitutional law experts believe that it can not have a retroactive effect.
Vahe Grigorian, a human rights lawyers who has represented some of the evicted low-income families, admitted that the court ruling will primarily benefit the few remaining residents of old neighborhoods whose houses have not yet been torn down. They might succeed in forcing the authorities to halt the process pending the adoption of a special law demanded by the Constitutional Court.
The court cited a constitutional clause stipulating that private property in Armenia can be confiscated by the state “only in exceptional cases involving overriding public interests, in a manner defined by law, and with a prior commensurate compensation.” The commercial redevelopment, marred by allegations of high-level corruption, has only been regulated by the 2002 government directive, however.
Grigorian also acknowledged that those who have already been forced out of their now demolished homes are unlikely to clinch a “more fair compensation” from Yerevan’s government-appointed municipality. Still, he urged them to use the Constitutional Court decision for filing fresh lawsuits against the government. He argued that their likely rejection by Armenian courts will enable plaintiffs to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Grigorian and his Right law firm have already helped several displaced families lodge appeals to the Strasbourg court. The lawyer and local human rights groups believe this is why he was arrested last October and spent five months in pre-trial detention on controversial fraud charges.
Grigorian’s calls for fresh legal action were echoed by senior members of the opposition People’s Party (HZhK) and Larisa Alaverdian, Armenia’s former human rights ombudsperson who has repeatedly condemned the demolitions as illegal. Speaking at a joint news conference with Grigorian and the HZhK activists, Alaverdian said the evicted families should also appeal to President Robert Kocharian.
“The situation has changed,” she said. “There is a new judicial reality. The president must instruct [Justice Minister] David Harutiunian to show ways in which the rights of these individuals can be restored.”
Meanwhile, about three dozen displaced residents protested outside the government building earlier on Thursday, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakharian. “If they have shame they will quit,” said one of the protesters. “But if they are still hungry for people’s homes, then of course they will stay on.”
(RFE/RL photo: A new commercial district built in central Yerevan in place of the controversially demolished old houses.)