By Anna Saghabalian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Law-enforcement officials forced opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian to leave the headquarters of his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party on Tuesday less than 24 hours after allowing him to re-enter the premises controversially sealed off by the Armenian authorities three months ago.
Hovannisian and a group of his close associates locked themselves in the Zharangutyun offices in downtown Yerevan late Monday, defying eviction orders from the Service for Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts of the Armenian Ministry of Justice. They denounced the orders as illegal, citing an injunction issued by a Yerevan court on April 14.
The injunction effectively annulled a March 4 decision by a state-run theater, from which Hovannisian has leased the offices for over 15 years, to lock Zharangutyun out of its headquarters. It said that no restrictive action can be taken against the property until the court rules on a lawsuit filed by Hovannisian against the theater management.
According to the Zharangutyun leadership, this means the party can regain control of the premises at least until the end of the litigation. The Justice Ministry bailiffs, who took more than 40 days to enforce the court order, did not object to this interpretation as they reopened the Zharangutyun offices on Monday.
But they returned to the scene several hours later, claiming that the party leaders were only supposed to briefly inspect their offices and then leave them. They managed to force Hovannisian and his loyalists out after two-hour negotiations the next morning.
“We let the plaintiff in yesterday to see if their property is intact. But after that they illegally entered [the offices] and refused to leave,” a senior bailiff, Vahram Yenokian, told RFE/RL.
Hovannisian insisted, however, that the bailiffs’ actions are illegal and politically motivated. “Six hours after diligently implementing the court order, the bailiffs received an order from another body,” he said. “With their about-turn, they showed that justice in this country is still a bubble.”
Hovannisian, who had served as Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1992, regards the eviction as a government retaliation for his December open letter to President Robert Kocharian which effectively implicated the latter in high-profile political murders and electoral fraud. Zharangutyun, which is expected to be a major opposition contender in next year’s parliamentary election, has accused the authorities of systematically harassing and bullying its activists across the country in recent months.
Hovannisian sent on Tuesday a letter to Armenia’s top law-enforcement officials demanding a criminal investigation into his claims that government agents illegally accessed Zharangutyun computers and stole confidential data shortly after the party was locked out of its offices.
“It now becomes evident as to how the ‘national security’ bodies and the local lackeys of the incumbent presidency were able to obtain relevant information about the party’s support base nationwide,” the party said in a separate statement. “As is widely known, the persecution and pressure upon the local divisions of the Zharangutyun Party have increased since the middle of March, with party members being threatened and ordered to leave the party.”
A spokesman for the Armenian police told RFE/RL later in the day that Hayk Harutiunian, chief of the national Police Service, has received Hovannisian’s letter and ordered a police division to look into the allegations.
Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, also pledged to “examine these reports in detail.” “If what you are telling me is true, then there was a violation [of the law] and we will react to that,” he told RFE/RL. “But there needs to be a forensic examination to determine whether somebody used that computer and other details.”
Harutiunian reacted extremely cautiously to the allegations about a nationwide persecution of Zharangutyun activists, saying that he can only comment on “concrete facts.” “Frankly, I always avoid making generalized evaluations because I believe that is wrong as very often there are subjective approaches involved,” said the former presidential adviser. “I have to try to look at the issue more objectively.”
(RFE/RL photo: Raffi Hovannisian.)