The two most prominent members of the Armenian opposition remaining in prison were set free on Friday in accordance with a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities.
Sasun Mikaelian, a former parliament deputy, and Nikol Pashinian, editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, received a hero’s welcome from family members, friends and supporters as they walked out of different penitentiary institutions.
The two men played a major role in the March 1, 2008 post-election demonstrations in Yerevan that were forcibly broken by security forces and left ten people dead.
Like many other associates of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, both men went into hiding following the crackdown. Mikaelian was caught and arrested several days later, while Pashinian remained on the run until surrendering to law-enforcement bodies in July 2009.
“I will keep fighting,” Mikaelian told journalists outside a prison hospital in Yerevan where he has spent much of his time since March 2008. “Nothing has changed in my political views and attitudes,” he said.
Mikaelian, who is also a prominent veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, insisted that he was “unjustly” sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of organizing what the Armenian authorities call “mass disturbances” and illegal arms possession. He was stripped of his parliament mandate because of that conviction.
The mustachioed oppositionist, who lives in the central Armenian town of Hrazdan, was also unrepentant about his decision to back Ter-Petrosian in the February 2008 presidential election despite being affiliated with current President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party. He said at the same time that Sarkisian remains his “comrade-in-arms,” alluding to the president’s prominent role in the war against Azerbaijan.
Mikaelian also weighed in on a dialogue between the Sarkisian administration and Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK), which has been made possible by the amnesty. “If it’s really an honest dialogue, then I accept it,” he said.
Asked whether he will now campaign for Sarkisian’s removal from power, Mikaelian said, “The Congress will decide.”
Pashinian struck an even more defiant note as he emerged from a high-security prison near the northwestern Armenian town of Artik later, chanting “Struggle, struggle to the end,” Ter-Petrosian’s famous political slogan. “I can’t wait to take part in the [HAK’s] May 31 rally,” he told journalists.
Pashinian went on to call for Sarkisian’s resignation and said the HAK “will do everything” to achieve it. He dismissed speculation that the HAK leadership is now ready to cut a deal with the Armenian presidential that would enable the latter to hold on to power.
The outspoken oppositionist claimed he was repeatedly offered such deals by the authorities while in prison. “Let nobody doubt that we will free Armenia from this kleptocracy and establish democracy,” he declared.
Pashinian, 35, was one of the most influential speakers at massive anti-government rallies organized by Ter-Petrosian before and after the 2008 presidential ballot. He was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for allegedly organizing the deadly unrest in the capital. He denied the accusations as politically motivated.
The release of Pashinian, Mikaelian and a handful of other individuals regarded by the HAK as political prisoners has one of the main opposition preconditions for starting a dialogue with Sarkisian. The authorities are thought to have accepted this demand through the amnesty.