The ruling, strongly condemned by the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), disqualified Pashinian from a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities in June. The amnesty led to the release of dozens of other opposition members arrested following the deadly clashes between security forces and opposition protesters demanding a re-run of the February 2008 presidential election.
A Yerevan court found Pashinian guilty of organizing the “mass riots” but cleared him of assaulting a police officer during another opposition demonstration staged in October 2007.
State prosecutors demanded last month prison sentences of six and two years respectively for these alleged crimes. The court ruling means that the outspoken editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily received an even tougher punishment for the riot charge.
“Experience shows that courts usually pass sentences that are shorter, by at least one year, than the ones demanded by prosecutors,” one of his lawyers, Lusine Sahakian, told RFE/RL. “The opposite has happened in this case.”
“We certainly did not expect acquittal from the court because just verdicts have not been handed down in Armenia for a long time,” she said.
Pashinian seemed undaunted by the verdict, making a victory sign and waving to his supporters after Mnatsakan Martirosian, the judge presiding over the trial, read it out in the courtroom. “I am not so naïve as to think that any court in the Republic of Armenia can hand down an acquitting ruling on this political case,” he said in the court on December 26. “I accept an acquitting ruling not from the court but Armenia’s citizens and people.”
The HAK swiftly denounced the ruling as illegal and politically motivated and said Armenia’s current leaders will eventually be held accountable for it. “Judges, investigators and prosecutors must realize that they too will not be forgiven because they are butchers executing orders,” said Levon Zurabian, a leader of the opposition alliance. “We know that Serzh Sarkisian personally decided this verdict.”
“The court carried out an explicit order,” charged Stepan Demirchian, another HAK leader. “That is, they want to keep Nikol Pashinian in prison at any cost.”
The opposition leaders spoke to RFE/RL outside the court building where about a hundred opposition supporters gathered in a show of solidarity with Pashinian. They greeted the verdict with “Shame!” and “Serzhik murderer!” chants. They traded insults and briefly scuffled with riot police guarding the court building.
Pashinian, 34, was one of the most popular and passionate speakers at the anti-government protests staged by the HAK’s top leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian, following the 2008 presidential ballot. He took the center stage in the campaign on March 1, 2008 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.
He came out of hiding and was immediately placed under arrest in July 2009 following the declaration of the amnesty. Under the terms of the amnesty, the oppositionist would have walked free had he been sentenced to up to five years’ imprisonment.
Pashinian tried unsuccessfully to win a vacant seat in Armenia’s parliament in a by-election held in a Yerevan constituency earlier this month. The HAK has denounced the vote, won by a pro-government candidate, as fraudulent.