By Astghik Bedevian
An Armenian appeals court upheld on Friday a suspended 18-month prison sentence that was handed to an Armenian nationalist activist from Georgia’s restive Javakheti region last December.
Vahagn Chakhalian, a young leader of the United Javakhk organization campaigning for the Armenian-populated region’s greater autonomy, was controversially deported from Armenia on December 4 immediately after the end of his first trial. A court in Gyumri convicted him of illegally entering the country two months earlier.
Chakhalian’s appealed against the ruling, saying that it is unfair and politically motivated. Armenian police chief Hayk Harutiunian, who personally ordered his expulsion, allowed the activist to return to Yerevan this year and attend court hearings on the appeal. Chakhalian has to again leave the country on Saturday.
“He will need the police chief’s permission to visit Armenia in the future,” said Tigran Hayrapetian, his Yerevan-based defense lawyer. “The law doesn’t specify for how long.”
“I don’t think I did anything that infringed on Armenia’s national security or interfered with Armenian authorities,” Chakhalian told RFE/RL after the Court of Appeals handed down the guilty verdict. “Quite the opposite. Our activities contribute to Armenia’s national security.”
The ruling was condemned by dozens of his supporters that staged a protest outside the court building in downtown Yerevan. “Shame on the puppet court!” one of them shouted through a megaphone.
Chakhalian, 25, was arrested on October 11 just hours after he, his parents, brother and another United Javakhk activist arrived in Armenia in a car and were reportedly stopped and beaten up by unknown men outside Yerevan. He was released from custody two weeks later amid protests from a number of Armenian non-governmental organizations and 16 members of Armenia’s parliament. They accused the authorities in Yerevan of using the case to cozy up to the Georgian government.
Chakhalian claimed that his deportation from Armenia emboldened the Georgian authorities to crack down on Javakheti Armenian activists seeking greater independence from Tbilisi and closer ties with Armenia. He also criticized Yerevan’s cautious policy towards Georgia.
“Instead of engaging in a principled and constructive dialogue with Georgia on the Javakheti issue, Armenia has opted for keeping its head in the sand,” he said. “Such a policy will inevitably lead to a further destabilization of the situation.”
Tension in the impoverished region rose after United Javakhk rejected official results of the October 5 local elections that gave victory to Georgia’s governing National Movement Party. Alleging massive fraud, United Javakhk rallied hundreds of supporters in the regional town of Akhalkalaki. The demonstration turned violent and was dispersed by the police.