Human Rights Watch has expressed serious concern over controversial prison sentences given to four Armenian opposition activists who clashed with police in downtown Yerevan in 2011.
The respected New York-based group described as “credible” opposition allegations that they were mistreated by police officers before being prosecuted and convicted by Armenian courts.
The four members of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) are accused of attacking officers maintaining public order in the city center in August 2011. They strongly deny the police claims, saying that they were beaten up and detained after the policemen tried to arbitrarily search another man. All of the activists except Tigran Arakelian, a leader of the HAK’s youth wing, were set free pending investigation.
A district court in Yerevan sentenced them to between two and six years in prison on charges of assault and hooliganism in July last year. Arakelian received the longest prison sentence for what the Armenian police say was a key role in the incident.
The three other men have not been imprisoned yet. They will go to jail if the prison sentences are upheld by higher courts.
Armenia’s Court of Appeals upheld the July court ruling in November before the four defendants appealed to the higher Court of Cassation.
“We are very concerned about the allegations of ill-treatment of the four defendants and the lack of an effective investigation into these allegations,” Rachel Denber, a Human Rights Watch deputy director, said in a letter to Arman Mkrtumian, chairman of the Court of Cassation, publicized on Thursday.
In her letter, Denber gave details of the incident as recounted by the HAK activists and their lawyers. “We hope that the Court of Cassation will be fully mindful of the above information as it relates to the case, and that it reviews all aspects of the case in accordance with Armenia’s binding human rights obligations,” she said. She called for “a prompt and thorough investigation into the credible allegations of ill-treatment.”
Later on Thursday, the Court of Cassation sent the appeal back to the defense lawyers, telling them to rectify its “flaws” in the next 20 days. The court said it is not clear whether the lawyers are seeking shorter prison sentences or want their clients to be acquitted.
Vahe Grigorian, one of the defense lawyers, suggested on Friday that the HRW letter might be a reason why the court did not reject the appeal out of hand. He also insisted that the lower courts handled the case with serious procedural and substantive violations of Armenian law.