Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian insisted on Friday that an opposition activist who was arrested during a January 1 protest in Yerevan is not a political prisoner.
Hovannisian also denied that Gevorg Safarian of the New Armenian Public Salvation Front opposition alliance was assaulted in Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison last week.
“We have looked into that,” she told reporters. “There was no violence against him. There were only some complaints regarding his prison cell.”
The violence was alleged by Safarian’s lawyer, Tigran Hayrapetian, on January 21. Hayrapetian did not say whether his client was assaulted by prison guards or other inmates.
According to Hovannisian, the oppositionist has assured both Justice Ministry officials and civic activists that “he is fine.” “If I’m not mistaken, he has voiced no [further] discontent as yet,” she said.
Safarian has claimed to be bullied and threatened by “criminal elements” ever since he was transferred to Nubarashen following his arrest. The activist has staged several hunger strikes to demand that he be kept in solitary confinement.
Safarian and dozens of other New Armenia activists scuffled with riot police as they tried to celebrate the New Year in Liberty Square, the scene of anti-government rallies held by the opposition group in December. Five of them were detained as a result.
All of the activists except Safarian were set free in the following hours. Safarian was charged with assaulting a police officer. The charge, rejected by New Armenia as baseless and politically motivated, carries up to five years in prison.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote to Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian on January 5, saying that Safarian is prosecuted for exercising his political rights and should therefore be set free. HRW went on to release a separate statement that denounced the activist’s pre-trial arrest as “wholly unjustified.”
“I am sure that there are simply no political prisoners in Armenia,” insisted Hovannisian. But she declined to comment on details of the criminal case against Safarian.
The 32-year-old minister also claimed that she has not watched video clips of the January 1 incident that have been disseminated by online media outlets. New Armenia and some local human rights campaigners say the footage shows that it was the police that assaulted Safarian and other protesters when the latter attempted to place a Christmas tree in the square.