By Ruzanna Stepanian
In a first-ever ruling relating to Armenia, the European Court of Human Rights on Thursday declared illegal the arrest of an Armenian opposition activist who helped to organize an anti-government demonstration more than four years ago.
The landmark judgment will raise fresh questions about the legality of hundreds of similar arrests that have accompanied the Armenian government’s controversial crackdowns on the opposition in recent years.
The plaintiff, Armen Mkrtchian, was detained by the police along with several other members of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party after actively participating in an unsanctioned rally in Yerevan on May 14, 2002. He was released after being fined a largely symbolic 500 drams ($1.5) under Armenia’s Soviet-era Administrative Code.
Mkrtchian took his case to the Strasbourg-based court in November 2002, arguing that the Armenian authorities can not sanction anyone for attending street protests in the absence of a law regulating the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly.
Armenia enacted such a law only in 2004. Until then, the Armenian government invoked Soviet-era regulations that required government permission for the holding of rallies and other public gatherings. Mkrtchian and his lawyer insist that those can not have a legal force in modern-day Armenia.
A panel of seven European Court judges, among them Armenian Alvina Gyulumian, unanimously accepted the 35-year-old oppositionist’s arguments, ruling that his brief detention violated a key article of the European Convention on Human Rights which takes precedence over all Armenian laws and government directives. Yerevan signed up to the convention when it joined the Council of Europe in January 2001.
The Strasbourg court cited a lack of “domestic provision which clearly stated whether the former USSR laws remained or did not remain in force on the territory of Armenia.” Its did not impose any penalties on the Armenian state, saying that the “finding of a violation constituted in itself sufficient just satisfaction for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicant.”
Mkrtchian, who did not seek any material compensation, said he is fully satisfied with the ruling. “The main purpose of my application was to show our judges and rulers that they must honor their obligations to the Council of Europe,” he told RFE/RL. “They will now be more vigilant. I have kind of cleared the way for similar legal challenges against illegalities committed in our country.”
The Armenian Justice Ministry, which fought the government’s corner in Strasbourg, declined comment. A spokeswoman said Justice Minister David Harutiunian is too “busy” to immediately react to the development.
The Armenian authorities used the Administrative Code to arrest hundreds of opposition supporters and activists during the presidential elections of February-March 2003 and the April-May 2004 opposition campaign of street protests against President Robert Kocharian. Many of them were sentenced to between five and fifteen days’ imprisonment in closed overnight trials condemned by local and Western human rights groups.
The Council of Europe has repeatedly criticized the practice of so-called “administrative detentions,” leading the authorities in Yerevan to abolish it last year.