By Hovannes Shoghikian and Anna Saghabalian
Armenia’s Court of Appeals on Thursday essentially upheld the lengthiest of prison sentences given to arrested supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian so far.
Harutiun Urutian, who managed one of Ter-Petrosian’s campaign offices in the northwestern Shirak region during the Armenian presidential race, was among more than 100 opposition leaders and members arrested following the February 19 election. He was charged with assaulting a proxy of establishment candidate Serzh Sarkisian at a local polling station and thereby obstructing the work of its election commission on election day.
In what was the harshest election-related punishment in Armenia’s history, a regional court sentenced Urutian to seven years in prison late last month. Urutian rejected the charges as politically motivated and appealed against the verdict. His lawyer, Tamara Yayloyan, insisted during court hearings in Yerevan that he is innocent and must be acquitted.
However, the Court of Appeals only agreed to shorten the ruling by one year, upholding the charges brought against the oppositionist.
With none of the arrested oppositionists acquitted so far, the same fate most probably awaits an appeal filed by Hovannes Harutiunian, a Ter-Petrosian proxy in Yerevan’s Arabkir district who was sentenced to 18 months in prison last month for keeping 15 bullet cartridges at home. Prosecutors claim that he bought and possessed the ammunition illegally. A district court Yerevan dismissed Harutiunian’s assurances that he had purchased it for his hunting rifle registered with the police.
The Court of Appeals is to rule on the appeal later this month. Both Urutian and Harutiunian were greeted with dozens of opposition supporters chanting “Freedom!” as they appeared before different panels of judges on Thursday. Similar scenes could also be observed in virtually all other court hearings involving arrested Ter-Petrosian supporters.
Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian warned on Thursday that with such noisy actions opposition sympathizers are only reducing chances for the acquittal of their comrades. “Unfortunately, not only do the courtrooms turn into sites of disturbances but there are threats addressed to judges,” he said. “It is extremely hard to expect a judge to be impartial after that.”
Speaking to RFE/RL, Danielian also defended guilty verdicts against oppositionists arrested during the dispersal early on March 1 of Ter-Petrosian’s tent camp in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. All of those detainees were charged with resisting police. Most of them have already been tried and sentenced to up to three years in prison. Some pleaded guilty to the accusations and got suspended jail terms.
The verdicts handed down in those cases were based on testimony given by police officers, something which Danielian believes does not run counter to the due process of law. “If we don’t trust a policeman, then by the same token we can not trust anyone,” he said.
Danielian also dismissed reports that the more prominent of the detainees have been barely questioned in custody. The lawyers of those detainees say this only shows that the cases brought against their clients are unsubstantiated and politically motivated.
According to Danielian, just because an arrested oppositionist has virtually no contact with law-enforcement officials does not mean that the ongoing investigation into what the Armenian authorities call an opposition attempt at coup d’etat has stalled. “It’s just that investigative tactics and rules of investigation are such that such breaks may sometimes occur,” he said.
The “urgent release of the persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges” is a key point of a resolution on the post-election developments in Armenia adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) last month. The Armenian authorities have pledged to comply with the demand, while maintaining that there are no political prisoners in the country. Only a handful of well-known opposition figures have been set free so far.