By Karine Kalantarian and Hovannes Shoghikian
Seven leading members of the Armenian opposition went on a politically charged trial Friday, accused of provoking deadly street clashes and attempting to topple the government following last February’s presidential election.
A district court in Yerevan opened hearings on the case amid tight security in and around it and growing Western demands for the release of dozens of associates and supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian arrested in the wake of the vote. Hundreds of opposition supporters gathered outside the court building to protest against what they see as a travesty of justice.
The seven defendants include former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, who managed Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign, and three influential opposition parliamentarians. They all stand accused of organizing “mass riots accompanied by murders” and attempting to “usurp state authority by force.” One of the opposition lawmakers, Miasnik Malkhasian, is also charged with personally leading angry opposition supporters that clashed with security forces in Yerevan on March 1.
At least eight civilians and two police servicemen were killed in what the Armenian authorities say was 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.
The trial got off to a tense start, with some of the defendants and their lawyers demanding the resignation of the presiding judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian. Arzumanian poured scorn on Martirosian, saying that he should throw out the case, apologize to the defendants and set them free.
“There is no justice here, there is only repression,” charged another defendant, Shant Harutiunian. He said that the trial is inherently unfair and that he will therefore be making only “political statements” in the courtroom.
Another, less prominent defendant, Suren Sirunian, threatened to boycott court sessions unless “equal conditions” are put in place for all parties to the trial. Sirunian is primarily known as a former top bodyguard of Vano Siradeghian, a fugitive former interior minister and key member of the Ter-Petrosian administration that governed Armenia from 1991-1998.
Martirosian twice refused to abandon the case but still received another petition from defense lawyers demanding his replacement by another judge. He agreed to consider it before adjourning the trial until Tuesday.
The court proceedings were watched by several dozen supporters and relatives of the accused as well as other opposition leaders and journalists. The spectators’ were separated from the trial participants by a glass wall that cut the courtroom in half.
Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the opposition People’s Party of Armenia, dismissed the accusations leveled against fellow oppositionists as “fabricated.” “The authorities had an opportunity to take real and adequate steps to ease tension in the country,” he said. “The issue of political prisoners should have long been resolved.”
Ararat Zurabian, who leads another opposition party and spent four months in detention, was confident that his comrades’ release from prison is imminent. “I think that the authorities will have to free everyone very soon,” he told RFE/RL.
Tension also ran high outside the court building in Yerevan’s southern Shengavit district where several hundred opposition supporters gathered to voice their solidarity with the defendants and chant opposition slogans. They faced scores of riot police guarding the building.
A brief scuffle erupted when some of the protesters tried to get in. “There is no more space in the courtroom,” a court guard shouted as the police pushed back the crowd.
The high-profile trial got underway two days after a key panel of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) described the jailed Armenian oppositionists as political prisoners and urged the PACE to impose sanctions on Yerevan. The United States has also been pressing for the release of most of the detainees. The authorities maintain that none of them is a political prisoner.
Judge Martirosian set a date for the trial on December 10, 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 12,000-page case within such a short period. They have suggested that the authorities artificially sped up judicial proceedings to make sure that the trial starts well before the next session of the PACE due in late January.