By Karine KalantarianA group of Armenian human rights activists picketed Armenia’s Office of Prosecutor-General on Friday for the second consecutive day, demanding the release of opposition activists arrested last month and still kept in jail.
The representatives of several local non-governmental organizations stood outside the law-enforcement agency’s main building between 10 and 11 a.m. local time, holding up banners and urging passers-by to sign a petition supporting their demands. They described the 14 oppositionists prosecuted on criminal charges ranging from an attempt to “seize power” to “hooliganism” as political prisoners.
“The fact that we have political prisoners means that no one is free and that freedom as a value is trampled underfoot in this country,” said one of the organizers of the protest, Eleonora Manandian of a civic group called New Armenia.
“All of the 14 persons are political prisoners or prisoners of conscience,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee.
Most of the detainees, including former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, are being prosecuted in connection with a criminal investigation into the opposition Artarutyun bloc’s campaign of street protests aimed at forcing President Robert Kocharian to resign. They have been charged with calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order” and publicly “insulting” senior government officials.
The picket took place while Armenia’s Court of Appeals, based in an adjacent building in downtown Yerevan, refused to overturn lower-level court rulings that remanded two senior members of the bloc, Suren Sureniants and Aramazd Zakarian, in custody pending trial. Zakarian is prosecuted for shouting during a recent politically charged trial that Armenian judges are corrupt.
Among the detainees are also several opposition activists who clashed with Kocharian supporters and plainclothes police that tried to disrupt an opposition rally in the country’s second largest city of Gyumri in late March. All of them are facing charges of “hooliganism” and disruption of public order. Artarutyun leaders say the violence was provoked by the authorities.
The protesters’ list does not include another Gyumri oppositionist who has already been sentenced to one year in prison on a similar charge.
The Armenian authorities, faced with a barrage of domestic and international criticism, deny that the detained oppositionists are punished for expressing their views and engaging in political activities. “There are no political prisoners in Armenia, what they are saying is lies and slander,” one prosecutor who asked not to be identified told RFE/RL.
The opposition, however, regards the detainees as “political hostages,” saying that the regime is using them as a bargaining chip in its bid to cling to power.