By Astghik Bedevian and Ruben Meloyan
Under Armenia’s laws regulating court hearings, trial participants must stand up when judges make their way into the courtroom. The seven oppositionists tried for attempting to “usurp state authority” and organizing mass riots after last February’s presidential election refuse to comply with this requirement in protest against what they see as a politically motivated case.
The defendants, among them former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian and three parliament deputies, remained demonstratively seated at the start of the third court hearing on the high-profile case on Saturday. The judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, again construed this as a contempt of court and adjourned proceedings until January 9 moments later.
“We won’t stand up no matter how many times you have us taken away,” Arzumanian told the judge. He also demanded that Martirosian address him as “Mr. Arzumanian,” rather than “defendant Arzumanian.”
“We consider this trial illegal and won’t stand up because right from the beginning the judge has neglected our rights,” said another defendant, parliament deputy Miasnik Malkhasian. He suggested sarcastically that President Serzh Sarkisian cut short the trial with a decree setting punishment for each of the defendants.
Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights defender personally monitoring the trial, discussed the situation with Martirosian afterwards. He said he will meet other judicial experts to discuss possible ways of resuming the trial that would satisfy both sides.
“Because the Judicial Code requires [defendants] to stand up he can not start hearings after being treated disrespectfully,” Harutiunian told reporters. “We are in a kind of deadlock. To me the positions of both the judge and the defendants are acceptable.”
Although the courtroom was mostly empty on Saturday, journalists and photographers were again barred from entering it and had to follow proceedings from monitors placed in an adjacent room. Court officials refused to explain the ban which Harutiunian condemned as “unacceptable.”
Journalists were similarly barred from the courtroom during the previous court hearing held on December 23. It was marred by bitter verbal exchanges between defendants’ relatives and plainclothes police officers brought into the courtroom.
Most of those relatives boycotted Saturday’s hearing at the urging of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). The opposition alliance claimed last week that the Armenian authorities need an excuse to hold the trial behind the closed door and are planning to provoke more ugly scenes in the court for that purpose.
In a related development, a group of civil rights activists monitoring conditions in Armenia’s prisons has backed opposition claims that another defendant, Grigor Voskerchian, and at least two other oppositionists kept in Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison were beaten up on December 23. A member of the group, Artur Sakunts, told RFE/RL that it submitted a corresponding report to Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian on December 25. He said Danielian forwarded the report to the Office of the Prosecutor-General.
Also last week, President Serzh Sarkisian ordered Danielian to investigate the torture allegations. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry department managing the Armenian prisons said on Monday that the inquiry is still in progress.
The department strongly denies the allegations. According to its version of events, the department’s “rapid reaction” unit met with fierce resistance from some Nubarashen inmates as it conducted regular searches in the prison on December 23. It says the unit had to use force against those prisoners that seriously injured its commander.