Iran’s most prominent human rights campaigner, Shirin Ebadi, on Wednesday visited several jailed members of the Armenian opposition and renewed her calls for the immediate release of all “political prisoners” in Armenia.
Ebadi met with opposition newspaper editor Nikol Pashinian, former parliament deputy Sasun Mikaelian and two other opposition figures on the second day of an annual congress held in Yerevan by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). All of them except Pashinian are kept in a prison hospital in Yerevan.
Prison authorities initially allowed journalists to be present at her conversations with the oppositionists. But they withdrew the permission at the last minute.
“I was not allowed to meet them in their prison cells. I met all of them in a special meeting room,” Ebadi told RFE/RL’s Armenian service in an interview. “I gave them a bunch of flowers.”
“All the political prisoners whom I have visited today said the prison sentences given to them were unfair,” she said.
While deploring their imprisonment, Ebadi again made the point that Armenia compares favorably with Iran and other countries of the broader region in terms of human rights and civil liberties.
“I was told that there are 14 political prisoners in Armenia,” said the 2003 Nobel Prize winner. “Unfortunately, there are more than 1,000 of them in Iran. And while in Armenia I was able to visit prisons, that is practically impossible to do in Iran.”
Ebadi was allowed to visit the prison hospital as well as Yerevan Nubarashen jail the day after she, the FIDH chairwoman, Souhayr Belhassen, and other conference participants joined an opposition rally held in the Armenian capital. In emotional speeches delivered at the protest, they demanded that the Armenian authorities free all of the individuals whom the opposition regards as political prisoners.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Wednesday, Belhassen stressed that their extraordinary intervention was not a show of support for the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) and its agenda. “We are not a political party,” she said. “We are organizations protecting human rights. Therefore, the purpose of our participation in that rally was the release of the political prisoners.”
Belhassen added that she and other conference organizers voiced the same demands when they were received by President Serzh Sarkisian earlier on Tuesday. “My message to him was the release of the political prisoners, an investigation into the circumstances of the deaths of people in March 2008, freedom of speech, administration of justice and, in this context, exclusion of torture,” she said.
Ebadi noted that Sarkisian personally assured her at the meeting that she can meet any of the jailed oppositionists. She said Sarkisian insisted that none of them was arrested and sentenced for political reasons.
David Avetisian, a senior judge at Armenia’s Court of Cassation, likewise denied any political motives behind their prosecution. “I don’t think that there are political prisoners who ended up in jail as a result of judicial acts taken by our courts,” he told RFE/RL. “They were sentenced for committing concrete crimes.”
Avetisian spoke to RFE/RL after a speech at the FIDH congress that was interrupted by angry shouts an opposition supporter present in the conference hall. “The gentleman’s speech testifies to the fact that the right to free speech is respected in our country,” he told the audience.
“It testifies to the fact that you have no shame,” the protester, Vardges Gaspari, shouted back. Iranian-born Gaspari was arrested following the March 2008 violence in Yerevan and spent several months in detention.
Another opposition activist participating in the forum, Isabella Sargsian, vehemently protested after a security guard tore up her poster demanding the release of the oppositionists. The incident occurred while she was collecting signatures in support of the demand. Sargsian said she will lodge a complaint to the police.