By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Stepanian
One of the Armenian opposition leaders arrested following the post-election unrest in Yerevan was released from prison on Tuesday less than a week after being hospitalized with serious heart problems.
Ararat Zurabian, chairman of the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), had been in custody since early March, accused of plotting a coup d’etat and inciting “mass disturbances.” The accusations, which were also leveled against most of the other prominent opposition detainees, stem from the March 1 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) said last month that all of those detainees, who deny the accusations as politically motivated, should be freed “unless there is strong evidence that these persons have personally committed acts of violence or serious other criminal offences.” The Armenian authorities largely ignored the demand, with a Yerevan court prolonging Zurabian’s pre-trial arrest as recently as on July 3.
Zurabian, whose party had been in government from 1990-1998, was transferred from a Yerevan prison to a heart clinic on July 23 after being diagnosed with a serious cardiac disease. News of his formal release pending trial was announced by a senior law-enforcement official at a meeting of an Armenian parliamentary commission investigating the post-election unrest. The HHSh leader remained in the hospital as of Tuesday evening.
The commission chairman, Samvel Nikoyan, twice visited Zurabian in the hospital last week. According to him, Zurabian was reluctant to discuss details of the criminal case brought against him.
“Our entire conversations were about general problems facing our state,” Nikoyan told RFE/RL. “It was a very cordial and long discussion … He mostly spoke about the current situation in our state and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Zurabian is the third well-known supporter of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian to have been set free in the past week. The two others are Gurgen Yeghiazarian, a former deputy director of Armenia’s National Security Service, and Arshak Banuchian, deputy director of the Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Armenian Manuscripts.
A total of some 70 other Ter-Petrosian supporters, among them three members of parliament, remain in prison. The PACE and other international bodies regard many of them as political prisoners. The PACE president, Lluis Maria de Puig, warned during a visit to Yerevan last week that failure to free them by mid-September would put at risk Armenia’s continued full membership in the Council of Europe.
(Photolur photo: Zurabian pictured during a February rally in Yerevan with membership cards of Armenians who left the ruling Republican Party in protest against the government's handling of the presidential election.)