By Emil Danielyan
An Armenian human rights activist, who spent ten days in jail for publicly protesting an arson attack on his office, vowed Thursday to fight for his legal rehabilitation by taking his case to an appeals court in Yerevan.
Artur Sakunts, head of the Vanadzor branch of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA), said he will file an appeal next week to Armenia’s Review Court despite having served the jail sentence handed down by a local court for his “malicious disobedience” of police. He said he will try to prove that the March 15 ruling, condemned by Human Rights Watch (HRW), was “illegal.”
The New York-based watchdog has thrown its weight behind Sakunts’s appeal. In a long letter sent to the Review Court this week, the HRW’s executive director for Europe and Central Asia argued that the rights campaigner’s trial was “unfair” and the resulting verdict “flawed.” “The [Vanadzor] court did not call any witnesses in his defense and heard only police evidence against him,” Elizabeth Andersen said.
“I believe that the decision by the Vanadzor court of first instance to subject me to administrative arrest is illegal and must be reversed,” Sakunts told RFE/RL in an interview.
“I am not naïve to hope they will enforce the law,” he added. “But I will take every step to demonstrate that Armenia’s judicial system functions with gross violations of the due process of law and is just an appendage of the executive authority.”
Sakunts is the first senior member of an Armenian human rights organization to face prosecution since the 1991 Soviet collapse. He was arrested by the Vanadzor police on March 15 immediately after holding a demonstration of protest against the previous day’s arson attack on the HCA’s office in the northern city of Vanadzor.
Local HCA activists say it was seriously damaged by a petrol bomb thrown through the window. However, the firefighters there concluded that the fire was caused by a short-circuit on the electrical wiring.
Sakunts was detained under Article 181 of Armenia’s Soviet-era Code of Administrative Misdemeanors which envisages punishment for organizing and holding unsanctioned street protests. But the local court sentenced him to 10 days in prison under a different legal provision which deals with defiance of law-enforcement officers.
The presiding judge, Vahan Hovannisian, found that Sakunts’s demonstration, reportedly attended by less than 50 people, “disturbed the peace of the [city’s] residents and blocked the road.” “Normal traffic became disordered as the drivers of the cars were interested by Artur’s speech, thus violating the traffic rules,” his verdict read. “Sakunts disobeyed the legal order of the police to immediately stop the action that was disturbing public order.”
“Human Rights Watch is concerned that the court’s findings were based on an incomplete presentation of the available relevant evidence,” Andersen said. She stressed that the European Convention for Human Rights, to which Armenia signed up last year, guarantees everyone freedom of expression and association.
Sakunts, who is not affiliated with any political group, was jailed amid ongoing arrests of dozens of opposition supporters across Armenia. Many of them have been given short jail sentences in similarly closed trials and under the same administrative code. The HRW, the Council of Europe and other international organizations have denounced the crackdown that followed the February 19 first round of the Armenian presidential election.
Sakunts’s group monitored the vote in the Vanadzor are and reported serious irregularities.