By Ruzanna Stepanian and Hovannes Shoghikian
More than a dozen Armenian veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh refused food for the seventh consecutive day on Monday in protest against the imprisonment of fellow supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian following last February’s presidential election.
The collective hunger strike by eleven veterans began in Yerevan’s Yerablur military cemetery on May 27. They were joined by seven other opposition supporters later in the week. Three of the hunger strikers ended the protest at the weekend due to a rapid deterioration of their health condition.
“This is our sole means of struggle,” one of the protesters, Hamlet Petrosian, told RFE/RL. “We realize that it is extreme. But we have no alternative.” “There is nothing else we can do for our comrades,” he said, referring to dozens of Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested as part of the Armenian government’s post-election crackdown on the opposition.
Some of the detainees are parliament deputies and other opposition figures who played a major role in the 1992-1994 war in Karabakh. Most of them are facing prison sentences for attempting to “usurp power” and organizing “mass disturbances.” The accusations stem from the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan between riot troops and opposition protesters.
“All this is slander,” said Arsen Hakobian, another hunger striker. “All those cases are fabricated. Only good guys are in prison.”
The release of opposition members prosecuted on “seemingly artificial” charges is one of the key requirements of a resolution on the political situation in Armenian that was adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in April. A key PACE committee said last week that the Armenian authorities have so far made “no progress” in satisfying this demand.
While pledging to comply with the resolution, the authorities insist that there are no political prisoners in Armenia. “No individual has been charged for their political views or political activities within the framework of any criminal case,” a spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL on Saturday.
According to Truzian, 49 oppositionists, among them three members of the National Assembly, remain under arrest pending trial. She said 24 others have already been tried and sentenced to up to three and a half years in prison for resisting police on March or illegally possessing weapons or ammunition. The official stressed that 15 of them pleaded guilty to the accusations and were given suspended sentences.
Truzian also dismissed opposition claims that none of the oppositionists was given a fair trial. “We are taking an individual approach towards every accused, and it is simply wrong to look for some political motives here,” she said.