By Ruzanna Stepanian
A controversial former chief of Armenia’s prisons who actively participated in the post-election opposition rallies in Yerevan was on Thursday sentenced to five years in jail and fined 900,000 drams ($2,940) on charges based on police testimony.
Mushegh Saghatelian was among dozens of opposition activists who were arrested during the Match 1 break-up of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s non-stop demonstrations in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Like many of them, he was charged with resisting arrest by violent means. Prosecutors say he hit and seriously injured a police officer during the pre-dawn operation.
Saghatelian, who managed Ter-Petrosian’s presidential election campaign in his native Shirak region, strongly denied the charges throughout his high-profile trial. He denounced the Criminal Court verdict in the case as “unfair” even before it was read out by the presiding judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian. Opposition supporters present in the courtroom greeted the ruling with “Shame!” and “Struggle till the end!” chants.
The oppositionist’s defense lawyer, Seda Safarian, also condemned the case as politically motivated, saying that her client was jailed for exercising his political rights. “They [the Armenian authorities] did not forgive him for not being one of them, for not obeying them,” Safarian told RFE/RL.
Safarian argued that the charges brought against Saghatelian were solely based on testimony given by police officers, a practice repeatedly condemned by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. The PACE’s Monitoring Committee called it “unacceptable” in a statement issued on October 2.
The committee also expressed serious concern about the continuing imprisonment of more than 70 opposition members and supporters. The Armenian authorities maintain that none of them is a political prisoner.
It is not the first time that Saghatelian, himself accused of committing grave human rights abuses while running Armenian prisons in the 1990s, is going to jail after challenging the government. He was arrested in 2001 and subsequently sentenced to six years prison for abuse of power, fraud and an attempt to obtain "false testimony" implicating then President Robert Kocharian in the 1999 assassinations in the Armenian parliament. He never pleaded guilty to the accusations.
Most of those accusations stemmed from Saghatelian’s widely reported ill-treatment of prisoners and opponents of the Ter-Petrosian administration. He was accused, in particular, of having participated in an infamous 1995 beating of some two dozen senior police officers suspected of plotting a coup d'etat.
Saghatelian was also found guilty at the time of personally torturing several opposition leaders arrested in the wake of the September 1996 controversially won by Ter-Petrosian. Local human rights groups pointed out that Saghatelian was prosecuted only after publicly alleging that the parliament shootings were masterminded by Kocharian and then Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.