Leaders of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and their partner campaigners from around the world chanted “Freedom!” in Armenian and made victory signs to the crowd during a surprise appearance at the rally timed to coincide with the start of the three-day forum.
“My dear friends, the entire FIDH is with you,” the FIDH chairwoman, Souhayr Belhassen, said in an emotional speech. “We want freedom for the prisoners.”
Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize-winning activist from Iran, echoed that demand just as emphatically, describing the more than a dozen imprisoned oppositionists as “political prisoners.” “The freedom-loving people of Armenia, be aware that you are not alone,” she said. “Human rights advocates from 151 countries have joined you to disseminate your voice of protest around the world.”
“I myself used to be a political prisoner and demand that all political prisoners be set free without any conditions,” Ebadi added before unfurling with Belhassen an HAK banner with photographs of the jailed oppositionists.
Armenia -- Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian (R) greets a Nigerian participant of an international human rights conference in Yerevan, 06Arp2010
Ebadi and the FIDH leaders, joined by some conference participants, left the hillside square in downtown Yerevan, a traditional venue for street gatherings, to rapturous applause. Their presence and rousing speeches were a major public relations coup for Armenia’s leading opposition force and its top leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian.
“In effect, the International Federation for Human Rights and our rally have united today,” Ter-Petrosian said in an ensuing speech. “We have held a joint conference.”
“That shows that we are not and could not have been alone because all the political prisoners, all freedom-loving people of the world are with us just as we are with those people,” he said.
In the weeks leading up to the FIDH’s annual conference, the HAK and some local human rights groups sympathetic to it claimed that the Armenian authorities might exploit the event to burnish their image abroad. Ter-Petrosian personally met Belhassen at the weekend to urge the FIDH to highlight the “deplorable” situation with democracy and human rights in Armenia.
Several dozen mostly young HAK activists picketed the conference venue to warn the Paris-based group against ignoring the opposition demands. Twelve of them wore mock prisoner uniforms and were chained together to symbolize the country’s remaining “political prisoners.” Others carried pictures of ten people killed in the 2008 post-election clashes in Yerevan.
Belhassen again sought to dispel the opposition fears at a news conference that preceded the opening session of the three-day forum. Speaking on behalf of its 300 or so participants, she called on the authorities to free all “political prisoners.”
Belhassen also called for a thorough and objective investigation into what she called a disproportionate use of force against thousands of opposition protesters in Yerevan in March 2008. “We will continue to press our questions until receiving answers,” she said.
President Serzh Sarkisian acknowledged the existence of “numerous problems” with human rights protection in Armenian when he met the conference organizers, including Ebadi, later on Tuesday, before they joined the HAK protest. But his reaction to the FIDH calls was not immediately known.
“We are guided by the principles of viewing everything in comparison,” the presidential press service quoted Sarkisian as telling them. “If those problems are more numerous today than they were several years ago, then our work requires a serious review. But if there is progress, then that means our efforts are being made in the direction.” No further details of the meeting were reported.
Armenia -- Opposition stages protest action outside FIDH International Congress in Yerevan, 06Apr2010
Sarkisian was initially due to open the FIDH gathering with a keynote speech. However, he cancelled it for unknown reasons, leaving it to the Armenian Constitutional Court chairman, Gagik Harutiunian, and Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian to welcome the participants from over 140 nations.
Both Harutiunian and Danielian were heckled by several Armenian opposition and civic activists present in the conference hall as they took the floor. Some of the foreign participants applauded when one man shouted “Shame on you!” at the minister.
“Take this as a manifestation of the development of civil society and let me start my speech,” a visibly calm Harutiunian told the audience. He expressed hope that the event will contribute to the development of “a judicial system enjoying public trust” in his country.
Ter-Petrosian, meanwhile, again predicted the impending downfall of Armenia’s current leadership. Addressing his supporters, Ter-Petrosian claimed that Sarkisian is now faced with a “fateful” dilemma: to accept what he termed a pro-Azerbaijani settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict proposed by international mediators or to put himself at odds with the international community.
“The paradox of the situation is that in both cases Serzh Sarkisian will undoubtedly lose power,” he said, urging the president to resign and call snap national elections.
Ter-Petrosian also claimed that President Robert Kocharian’s perceived attempts to return to active politics are a further indication that the current Armenian administration is in serious trouble. Kocharian does not think that Sarkisian will weather the storm and is keen to “save his skin,” he said.
Citing the need to “spare the country upheavals,” the HAK leader also implied that his opposition bloc will continue to stick to his cautious stance.
(Below is RFE/RL video of FIDH leaders hailing opposition activists that gathered outside the conference hall in Yerevan.)