Pashinian rejected the case against him as a charade as he appeared before a Yerevan court nearly four months after coming out of hiding and surrendering to law-enforcement authorities.
He had been wanted by them for allegedly provoking “mass riots” and defying “representatives of the state authority” on March 1, 2008. The charges carry between four and ten years’ imprisonment.
As the trial opened amid tight security in the morning, several dozen opposition supporters gathered outside the court building to demand the oppositionist’s release. “Why don’t they catch and try those responsible for the March 1 casualties instead of jailing innocent people?” one of them told RFE/RL. “Shame on them!”
“What can we expect from a deeply corrupt court? We have long known who Mnatsakan Martirosian is,” another protester said, referring to the controversial judge in the case.
Armenia - A video snapshot of the trial of opposition activist Nikol Pashinian (second from right) that started in Yerevan, 20Oct, 2009
Scores of riot police deployed there used force to push the small crowd away from the building after it chanted “Nikol! Nikol!” and anti-government slogans later in the day. Senior police officers at the scene said that amounts to a “violation of public order.”
“We are going to shut their mouths so they don’t shout bad things about the president,” Colonel Robert Melkonian told RFE/RL. The scuffles ended after the intervention of several opposition leaders.
Pashinian, 34, was one of the most popular and passionate speakers at the anti-government protests staged by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian following the February 2008 presidential ballot. He took the center stage in the opposition campaign on March 1 when thousands of opposition supporters barricaded themselves in central Yerevan hours after the break-up of Ter-Petrosian’s non-stop rallies in the city’s Liberty Square.
Ten people were killed and more than 200 others wounded in ensuing clashes between protesters and security forces, which led the outgoing President Robert Kocharian to declare a state of emergency and order mass arrests of opposition members. Pashinian was among several senior opposition figures who went underground and avoided arrest.
Most of them turned themselves in after a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities in June. Under the terms of the amnesty, Pashinian will walk free if he is found guilty and sentenced to up to five years in prison.
In his first speech in the court, the editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily denounced his trial as “the continuation of political repressions” which he said were unleashed by the authorities against the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition two years ago. He said he will not succumb to “the threats of these lawless authorities.”
One of Pashinian’s defense lawyer, Lusine Sahakian, demanded that Martirosian turn over the case to another judge, citing his controversial handling of the trial of some of the other opposition leaders prosecuted in connection with the 2008 unrest. “You must abandon the case because you cannot administer justice on this case,” she said.
Trial prosecutors strongly objected to the petition, accusing the defense of putting undue pressure on the court. Martirosian agreed with them after two-hour deliberations.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) described the charges leveled against Pashinian as “absolutely baseless and fabricated” and again alleged a government cover-up of the worst street violence in the country’s history.
As was the case during other high-profile trials of Ter-Petrosian loyalists, journalists were not allowed into the courtroom and had to follow proceedings from monitors placed in an adjacent room.