By Ruzanna Stepanian
More than two opposition leaders and activists arrested in the wake of Armenia’s disputed presidential election reportedly said on Tuesday that they are beginning a collective hunger strike to demand their release and an end to the ongoing government crackdown on the opposition.
In a joint statement circulated by the office of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, 19 of them said they will refuse food on Wednesday and will do so “indefinitely” if the authorities fail to meet their demands by April 9. The statement’s signatories include parliament deputy Miasnik Malkhasian, Aleksandr Arzumanian, a former foreign minister and Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign manager, Ararat Zurabian, chairman of the opposition Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), and Gurgen Yeghiazarian, a former deputy head of the National Security Service (NSS).
In a separate statement issued by Ter-Petrosian’s office, six other detainees said they are already on hunger strike and will not end the protest until the authorities not only release all “political prisoners” but annul the official results of the February 19 presidential election that gave victory to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
But according to the Armenian Justice Ministry, only 12 oppositionists formally informed prison administrations on Tuesday about their decision to begin a hunger strike in protest against what they see as baseless and politically motivated charges. A spokesman for the ministry department managing Armenia’s prisons told RFE/RL that all of them will be separated from other inmates on Wednesday.
The hunger strikers are among at least 102 Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested and prosecuted on a string of charges carrying lengthy prison sentences. Most of the accusations stem from the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between security forces and thousands of opposition supporters demanding a re-run of the February 19 presidential election. The Armenian authorities say the post-election street protests were part of an attempted coup d’etat plotted by Ter-Petrosian, a claim dismissed by the ex-president and his allies.
One of the jailed oppositionists, Suren Sureniants of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, had already declared a hunger strike with the same demands late last month and, according to his lawyer, was refusing food for the eighth consecutive day on Tuesday. The lawyer, Hovik Arsenian, said he visited his client in Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison on Monday and urged him to end the protest. But Sureniants pledged to continue the hunger strike despite his worsening health condition.
Like many of the detainees, Sureniants stands accused of attempting to seize power and organizing “mass riots,” even though he was arrested five days before the March 1 unrest. He was initially charged only with helping organize Ter-Petrosian’s unauthorized rallies in Yerevan.
Two of the hunger strikers, Husik Baghdasarian and Hovannes Harutiunian, have already been tried and handed prison sentences by Armenian courts on the same charge. Both men are prominent veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh who worked as Ter-Petrosian proxies on election day.
Baghdasarian, who is also a senior member of Hanrapetutyun, was sentenced to 3 years in prison on Monday for illegally possessing 16 gun cartridges. A court in southern Armenia dismissed his arguments that he had purchased the ammunition for his legally owned hunting rifle.
His lawyer, Vartan Zurnachian, laughed off the guilty verdict and said he will appeal it. “There was no precedent in Armenia of anyone getting three years in prison for possessing that many bullets,” Zurnachian told RFE/RL. “This is a vivid example of political persecution.”
Zurnachian also represents the interests of Harutiunian. The latter was sentenced last week to 18 months’ imprisonment for keeping more than 30 cartridges. He too claimed to have planned to use them for his Russian-made hunting rifle registered with the Armenian police.
In both court cases, prosecutors said that the ammunition was designed for other types of weapons.
(Photolur photo: Suren Sureniants.)