Armenia’s highest appeals court struck down on Wednesday controversial prison sentences that were given to four opposition activists who clashed with police in downtown Yerevan in 2011.
The Court of Cassation at the same stopped short of acquitting the young members of the Armenian National Congress (HAK) of what the opposition party regards as politically motivated charges. It only instructed the lower Court of Appeals to hear and rule on the case anew.
The four men were accused of attacking police officers maintaining public order in the city center in August 2011. They strongly denied 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 2012. Arakelian received the longest prison sentence for what the Armenian police say was a key role in the incident. The three other men 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 all four defendants appealed to the higher Court of Cassation.
Neither the defendants nor their lawyers were present in the courtroom when the panel of five judges announced its decision. The three of them stood outside the court building along with dozens of other HAK members demanding Arakelian’s immediate release.
Sargis Gevorgian, one of the sentenced activists, dismissed the latest court ruling as “absurd,” saying that he and his comrades should have been acquitted. He claimed that the Armenian authorities are simply keen to keep them under pressure.
“Their goal is to keep that sword of Damocles hanging over our young people,” agreed Levon Zurabian, the HAK’s deputy chairman. Zurabian said the authorities are at the same time keen to minimize damage to their international reputation resulting from the case.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch expressed serious concern over the fate of the HAK activists in a letter to Arman Mkrtumian, chairman of the Court of Cassation. 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.