Police denounced the Armenian opposition on Tuesday for preventing them from detaining a key witness before he retracted his incriminating testimony against one of the six opposition figures accused of organizing last year’s post-election violence in Yerevan.
The witness, Mushegh Antonian, was due to testify on Monday during the ongoing trial of parliament deputy Hakob Hakobian. As Antonian was about to take the stand in a Yerevan court handling the case, several plainclothes police officers approached and tried to take him to a police station in the city’s Malatia-Sebastia district. They did not explain reasons for his questioning or show a relevant police summons required by Armenian law.
Antonian refused to obey their orders and was quickly surrounded by mostly female opposition supporters who forced the officers to back away. The latter made another unsuccessful attempt to detain him outside the court building with the help of a group of uniformed policemen. The opposition supporters, joined by parliament deputy Armen Martirosian and another well-known oppositionist, Aram Karapetian, then escorted the young man to the offices of the opposition daily “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun.”
Antonian spent the night there and was driven to the court by Martirosian the next morning. Opening the court hearing, the presiding judge read out a statement by the Malatia-Sebastia police that accused Martirosian, Karapetian, ordinary opposition supporters and journalists covering the trial of illegally hampering their work. The statement did not specify whether any of them will face criminal proceedings as a result.
Both opposition leaders denied any wrongdoing and said it is the police that broke law. “I didn’t see a single uniformed individual who tried to approach Mushegh Antonian,” said Martirosian. “Nor did anyone produce a written summons or an ID certifying their service in the police.”
“I don’t quite understand what they mean by ‘obstruction,’” said Karapetian. “Someone came up to the witness and said, ‘You must follow me.’ It was a kidnapping attempt. Why shouldn’t we intervene?”
Antonian, meanwhile, renounced his pre-trial written statement in which he claimed that Hakobian organized groups of men who clashed with riot police on March 1, 2008. He told the court that he was forced to sign the testimony and did not even read it.
Antonian’s court statement reflects what has become a pattern in the separate trials of the six oppositionists charged with provoking the “mass riots” that left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured. Many of the witnesses called by the prosecution claim to have be bullied and tortured into giving false testimonies backing up the accusations.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General launched on Friday criminal proceedings against “some individuals” who it said are forcing witnesses to disown pre-trial statements signed by them. The law-enforcement agency did not name any of those individuals.
The wave of testimony retractions continued on Tuesday also in the trial of another jailed opposition parliamentarian, Miasnik Malkhasian. One of the witnesses in the case, Gagik Avdalian, said he falsely incriminated Malkhasian after being severely beaten by masked men in police custody in March 2008.
Avdalian disappeared from the court moments before he was due to testify at the trial on May 20. He later claimed to have been forcibly taken to the Inspectorate General of Criminal Investigations at the national police. Avdalian said the chief of the powerful police unit, Colonel Hovannes Tamamian, promised to free his brother, imprisoned for a criminal offense, if he stands by his initial testimony.
Another witness, Rafik Balbabian, claimed to have been under strong police pressure of late. “They took me to the police station every day, every hour, whenever they wanted,” he said, adding that he will nonetheless ignore police warnings and tell “the truth” in the court.
Balbabian may not get to do that, though, as the trial prosecutor asked the judge in the case to cut short the cross-examination of witnesses and move on to the next phase of the trial.
A similar petition was submitted by prosecutors on Monday to a court in Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, hearing the case of another oppositionist, Grigor Voskerchian. The court accepted it the next day. The decision means that eight of the 15 witnesses in the case will not be cross-examined by the judge, prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Aristakes Vartanian, an Abovian resident who has already appeared in the court, claimed in his pre-trial testimony that Voskerchian told him and other local opposition supporters to be “ready for any actions to topple the government” in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election. He stated on Monday that in fact he suffered a heart attack at the time and could not have met Voskerchian. “I had to sign the testimony so that they leave me alone,” said Vartanian.