A well-known Armenian opposition figure was set free on Wednesday after spending over two and a half years in prison on controversial charges stemming from the 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan.
Mushegh Saghatelian, a controversial former chief of Armenia’s prisons, was granted parole by a government commission dominated by senior law-enforcement officials earlier this week.
Saghatelian was greeted by relatives, friends and fellow members of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) as he walked out of Yerevan’s Vartashen prison..
“I still do not accept by guilt,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. He said he will continue to fight for leadership in the country alongside the HAK and its top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Saghatelian was among dozens of opposition activists arrested on March 1, 2008 during the break-up of Ter-Petrosian’s non-stop demonstrations in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Like many of them, he was charged with resisting arrest by violent means. Prosecutors said he seriously injured a police officer during the pre-dawn operation.
Saghatelian was sentenced to five years in prison and fined 900,000 drams ($2,500) on corresponding charges in October 2008. Both he and the HAK have denounced the case as politically motivated.
Saghatelian, himself accused of committing grave human rights abuses while running the Armenian prisons in the 1990s, was already jailed in 2001 after challenging the Armenian government. A Yerevan court convicted him of abuse of power, document fraud and an attempt to obtain "false testimony" implicating then President Robert Kocharian in the 1999 assassinations in the Armenian parliament. He never pleaded guilty to the accusations.
Most of those accusations stemmed from Saghatelian’s widely reported ill-treatment of prisoners and government critics during Ter-Petrosian’s 1991-1998 presidency. He was accused, in particular, of having participated in an infamous 1995 beating of two dozen senior police officers suspected of plotting a coup d'etat.
Saghatelian was also found guilty in 2001 of personally torturing several opposition leaders arrested in the wake of the September 1996 presidential election controversially won by Ter-Petrosian. Armenian human rights groups pointed out at the time that he was prosecuted only after publicly alleging that the 1999 parliament shootings were masterminded by Kocharian and then Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
Saghatelian is the second senior HAK figure to be released on parole in less than a month. Ashot Manukian, the other freed oppositionist based in Vanadzor, was also jailed for five years on the same charges.
More than a dozen other Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested following the February 2008 presidential election remain behind bars. The HAK considers them political prisoners and demands their quick release.