A court in Yerevan has extended the pre-trial custody of a prominent Armenian opposition figure facing charges connected with last year’s post-election unrest amid a growing demand from local rights group for his release pending a further investigation and trial.
After a session on Thursday that proceeded behind closed doors for more than three hours, the judge decided to satisfy the request of the Special Investigation Service (SIS) to extend the term of custody for Nikol Pashinian, a prominent opposition figure and newspaper editor charged with organizing “mass riots” and unsanctioned demonstrations as well as defying “representatives of the state authority.”
The 34-year-old editor of the pro-opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” was one of the most influential and passionate speakers at the anti-government protests staged by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian. He and several other opposition figures went into hiding following the violent suppression of those protests on March 1-2, 2008.
Pashinian turned himself in to Armenian law-enforcers on July 1 responding to an amnesty declared in Armenia and shortly was remanded in two-month pre-trial custody.
Under the terms of the June 19 amnesty, only oppositionists sentenced to up to five years’ imprisonment in connection with the March 2008 violence are to be immediately set free. The charges brought against Pashinian are punishable by up to ten years in prison.
Under the latest court ruling, Pashinian can be kept under arrest until November 1.
Pashinian’s lawyers dismissed the court decision as groundless, insisting that there are no legal grounds for keeping their client under arrest. They also described the charges brought against Pashinian as ‘fictional’.
Dozens of opposition supporters gathered outside the court building on Thursday to support the opposition member.
Vladimir Karapetian, a member of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), reminded that Parliament Speaker Hovik Abrahamian spoke at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) shortly after the Strasbourg-based body adopted a resolution, in June, urging the Armenian authorities not to place Pashinian and other fugitive oppositionists under pre-trial arrest if they turned themselves in by July 31. Thus, Karapetian said, Armenia’s top legislator effectively agreed with the PACE recommendation.
“I think that by arresting Nikol Pashinian the authorities also showed their disregard of the National Assembly and its chairman,” Karapetian told RFE/RL.
Earlier this month, Armenia’s leading press freedom groups and two dozen media outlets called for Pashinian’s release, saying that they were ready to offer formal guarantees that he would not again go into hiding ahead of his upcoming trial.
The statement, which was also signed by some 60 intellectuals and public figures, criticized as ‘discriminatory’ the law-enforcement authorities’ decision to put him under pre-trial arrest.