By Ruzanna Stepanian and Tigran Avetisian
A prominent nationalist activist vowed to continue to fight for regime change in Armenia as he walked free on Wednesday after serving a two-year prison sentence that was given to him on controversial coup charges.
Vartan Malkhasian and another prominent veteran of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Zhirayr Sefilian, were arrested in December 2006 just days after holding the founding congress of their Alliance of Armenian Volunteers (HKH), a pressure strongly opposed to any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. Armenia’s National Security Service claimed they planned to mount an armed uprising against the government ahead of the May 2007 parliamentary elections. Both men denied the charges as politically motivated.
A Yerevan court found Malkhasian guilty of publicly calling for a “violent change of constitutional order” and sentenced him to two years in prison in August 2007. The court cleared Sefilian of the charge but still jailed him for 18 months for illegally possessing a pistol which he claimed to have received as a gift from a former commander of the Karabakh Armenian army. The Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent was released from jail in June.
“Dear Armenian people, two years on I’m again with you, and together we will defeat the dictatorship very soon,” Malkhasian told several dozen relatives, friends and supporters as he emerged from Yerevan’s Vartashen prison. “We will deliver our coveted freedom to our political prisoner friends and the entire Armenian people.”
“We must fight against [the authorities] with all possible and impossible methods. Struggle, struggle to the end!” he said, chanting former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s famous political slogan.
Both Malkhasian and Sefilian have supported Ter-Petrosian’s bid to return to power despite his well-known advocacy of a compromise solution to the Karabakh conflict. Their HKH is one about two dozen opposition groups affiliated with Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress alliance.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Malkhasian said he is not worried that the Armenian authorities could use his tough talk to again imprison him. “I simply exercised my constitutional right,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sefilian joined several hundred people in marching to the Prosecutor-General’s Office in Yerevan to demand the release of some 70 Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested in the wake of the February presidential election. “The struggle will continue until we achieve our goal: to bring the leaders of this regime to justice,” he told RFE/RL.
“Some 70 of our comrades are in prison and we must make every effort to have them freed,” said Yerjanik Abgarian, another opposition figure.
The protest was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Human Rights Declaration. “Human rights are blatantly violated in our country,” said Aram Manukian, one of its organizers. “Today Armenia has more political prisoners than entire Europe.”
Despite a brief scuffle with police officers, the protesters, many of them relatives of the opposition detainees, were allowed to approach the prosecutors’ headquarters and chant anti-government slogans there.