An angry man fired gunshots at police outside a court in Yerevan on Thursday as 14 activists went on trial there more than six months after clashing with security forces in what they called an attempt to topple Armenia’s government.
The defendants led by Shant Harutiunian, a prominent nationalist politician, stand accused of violent disruption of public order, a crime punishable by between 4 and 7 years in prison. They initially faced harsher charges stemming from an anti-government demonstration that was organized by Harutiunian last November.
Armed with sticks and homemade stun grenades, the small crowd led by the veteran activist was confronted by riot police as it tried to march towards the presidential administration building in the Armenian capital. Harutiunian and 12 other men were arrested on the spot. All but one of them have been kept in pre-trial detention since then.
Harutiunian’s 15-year-old son Shahen was charged in the case but not arrested in April. He too is standing trial.
The defendants were greeted with applause and “Freedom!” chants from their supporters as they entered the courtroom. Although it was half empty, very few of their relatives were allowed to watch the trial. Those relatives angrily quarreled with dozens of police officers and court bailiffs deployed inside the room. “Most relatives standing outside the building haven’t seen their loved ones for seven months,” complained one woman.
The opening session of the trial adjourned shortly after its start, with the judge in the case, Mnatsakan Martirosian, citing the absence of some of the defense lawyers. Their clients condemned the absence and said they do not want to have legal counsels anymore.
A defiant Harutiunian urged the other defendants to follow suit. “Guys, the lawyers can’t help us in any way,” he said. “This is a political trial.”
“If I had believed in justice in Armenia I would not have picked up a stick and taken to the streets. I would have waited for the next elections,” argued Harutiunian.
Raffi Hovannisian, an opposition leader who was President Serzh Sarkisian’s main challenger in last year’s presidential election, attended the opening session of the trial in a show of solidarity with the jailed activists. He described them as political prisoners.
Nikol Pashinian, another prominent oppositionist, stood outside the courthouse. Pashinian, who himself spent almost two years in prison on controversial charges, said he does not expect a fair trial. “In Armenia, there is only one judge: Serzh Sarkisian,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Pashinian spoke shortly before a young man, who identified himself as Hayk Kyureghian stood on top of a car parked outside the building and demonstratively fired at police officers from a pistol. He was quickly overpowered by the policemen, handcuffed and arrested.
Moments before the extraordinary incident Kyureghian approached reporters and said he wants to disrupt what he believes is a sham trial. “I don’t necessarily agree with Shant’s views but he is not being tried fairly,” he said. “It’s a repression. I’ve come here to stop that.”
“I’m going to fight with them with a gas pistol, as a warning,” Kyureghian added, showing the gun. “I’ll then use a real gun.”
A police statement issued later in the day said the gunfire left several officers wounded. It did not specify whether Kyureghian fired gas or live rounds.