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By Karine Kalantarian
A court in Yerevan has set a date for what promises to be the most high-profile trial of opposition members arrested following Armenia’s bloody post-election unrest.

The Criminal Court said late Wednesday that seven prominent associates of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian will go on trial on December 19 on coup charges which the Armenian opposition considers politically motivated.

The detainees include Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign manager, Aleksandr Arzumanian, and three members of Armenia’s parliament who were stripped of their immunity from prosecution in March. All of them stand accused of organizing “mass riots accompanied by murders” and attempting to “usurp state authority by force.”

The accusations stem from the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters demanding a re-run of the disputed February 19 vote. At least eight civilians and two police servicemen were killed in what the Armenian authorities call a botched opposition attempt to stage a coup d’etat. Ter-Petrosian and his allies strongly deny the coup allegation, saying that the authorities deliberately used lethal force to enforce official vote results that gave victory to the establishment candidate Serzh Sarkisian.

Mnatsakan Martirosian, a Criminal Court judge, set the date for the oppositionists’ trial just nine days after receiving the criminal case from state prosecutors. The defendants’ lawyers say that he could not have read and familiarized himself with the 42-volume case within nine days.

“When a court receives a criminal case it has to look into that case to see whether there have been violations of procedural justice, whether correct legal evaluations have been made, whether a crime was really committed and whether there are grounds for pre-trial detentions,” one of the defense lawyers, Hovik Arsenian, told RFE/RL on Thursday. “The judge claims to have already familiarized himself with this case within nine days and found no violations. This can’t be the case.”

Arsenian and other defense lawyers believe that the authorities have artificially sped up judicial proceedings to make sure that the trial starts well before a January session of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The Strasbourg-based assembly is expected to again discuss the post-election developments in Armenia and decide whether to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members.

The decision depends, in large measure, on the recommendations of the PACE’s Monitoring Committee. It is scheduled to meet in Paris on December 17. The committee will in turn take into account a fresh report to be presented to it by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner on human rights.

Visiting Yerevan last month, Hammarberg said the Armenian authorities have still not complied with PACE resolutions that demanded, among other things, the immediate release of Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.” He specifically questioned the credibility of the accusations brought against Arzumanian and the six other well-known oppositionists.

“I have not so far seen any strong evidence which would make it possible for an independent court to sentence these seven persons for attempting to change power in this country with violence,” Hammarberg said.

Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian was quick to reject the criticism.

(Photolur photo: Aleksandr Arzumanian.)
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