By Ruzanna Stepanian, Anush Martirosian and Karine Kalantarian
One of the Armenian opposition leaders arrested following the recent presidential election was released late Monday while another went on trial Tuesday that was nearly disrupted by angry opposition supporters protesting against what they view as a travesty of justice.
Gurgen Yeghiazarian, a prominent member of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s campaign team, was set free pending trial more than four months after being arrested on charges of plotting a coup d’etat. Like the vast majority of other Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested in the post-election crackdown, he has rejected the accusations as politically motivated.
Yeghiazarian, who had served as deputy head of Armenia’s National Security Service in the 1990s, struck a defiant note at a news conference on Tuesday, denouncing the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian as a “fascist regime” keen to suppress dissent. “They arrested and isolated us from society illegally, but my comrades will get out of jail one by one because there is no evidence against them,” he said.
As Yeghiazarian spoke to journalists, another prominent oppositionist and a former government official, Smbat Ayvazian, appeared before a court in Yerevan to rapturous applause and chants from dozens of supporters attending his trial. Unlike Yeghiazarian and most other opposition detainees, Ayvazian was arrested several days before the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between opposition protesters and security forces, which left at least ten people dead. He stands accused of illegally possessing a knife and resisting police officers that detained him.
Ayvazian, who is a leading member of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, brushed aside the accusations as “nonsense.” He demanded that Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, who signed his indictment, be summoned to the court and personally substantiate the charges. The presiding judge, Gagik Avetisian, rejected the demand.
The court session descended into chaos at one point, with Avetisian repeatedly telling the angry audience to maintain order and interrupting the proceedings. Two well-known opposition politicians, former parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian and former Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian, were expelled from the courtroom as a result.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor, 40 opposition members and supporters remain in pre-trial detention and 30 others have been sentenced to up to six years in prison on charges mainly stemming from the post-election opposition protests and the March 1 unrest. Another 32 oppositionists have been given suspended prison sentences. The Ter-Petrosian led opposition puts the number of “political prisoners” at 79.
The Armenian authorities have refused to release most of the detainees despite continuing pressure from the United States, the Council of Europe and other international bodies that have criticized the crackdown. They believe that many of the Ter-Petrosian backers were arrested for political reasons.
President Sarkisian on Monday again denied any political motives behind the crackdown and said that law-enforcement bodies and courts have been quite lenient towards the arrested oppositionists. “I believe that if are excessively lenient, we will do our society a big disservice as many people would be tempted in the future to take such actions and feel that they can solve issues by force after every election,” he told a news conference.
The most famous of the detainees, among them three opposition parliamentarians, were charged under articles of Armenia’s Criminal Code that deal with “usurpation of state power” and “incitement to mass disturbances.” In a resolution adopted last month, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) cast doubt on the credibility of such accusations, saying that they should be dropped “unless there is strong evidence that these persons have personally committed acts of violence or serious other criminal offences.”
The fate of the arrested lawmakers was discussed on Tuesday at a meeting of an Armenian parliament commission tasked with conducting a parallel inquiry into the March 1 clashes. Vahagn Harutiunian, a senior law-enforcement official leading the separate criminal investigation, told commission members that their colleagues would obstruct the probe and pose a “danger to the public” if they were to be set free.
Harutiunian admitted at the same time that the investigators have still not collected sufficient incriminating evidence to put Miasnik Malkhasian, Sasun Mikaelian and Hakob Hakobian on trial. “The process of collection of evidence is still not over,” he said.
One of the commission members, Artsvi Minasian of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), inquired about details of the criminal case brought against Malkhasian. The law-enforcement official’s explanations failed to satisfy him. Minasian, whose party has defended the crackdown, said he now has even more serious doubts about the legality of his colleague’s imprisonment.