By Ruzanna Stepanian
A committee in support of two Karabakh war veterans tried on charges of publicly calling for a violent regime change is pushing for the article of the country’s penal code that allowed their arrest and trial to be scrapped or essentially modified.
In a statement issued on Thursday, a group of supporters of Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian challenge the constitutionality of Article 301 and urge Armenia’s political forces and civil rights groups to initiate the process.
“Article 301 is among the articles restricting freedom of speech. It is applicable exclusively in pre-election and post-election periods to restrict the freedom of speech and the right to public rallies for opposition members,” the statement reads.
Lebanese-born Karabakh war veteran Zhirayr Sefilian and his former comrade-in-arms Vartan Malkhasian were tried by court on charges of publicly calling for “a violent overthrow of constitutional order”. Early last week Malkhasian was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Sefilian was acquitted of this charge, but found guilty of a lesser offense of illegal arms possession and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment.
Both denounced their arrest and trial as politically motivated. They claimed in RFE/RL interviews earlier this week the authorities had punished them for their stiff opposition to any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan with a far-reaching goal of eliminating them from politics in the run-up to next year's presidential election.
In the interview, Malkhasian, a lawyer by training, disputed the fairness of the application of the criminal charge against him.
Article 301 of Armenia’s criminal code envisages a fine or up to three years in prison for such an offense. According to Malkhasian, it is difficult to measure the gravity of the ‘public call’ to pass a commensurate sentence.
“It turns out that some calls are less dangerous than others. There is no explanation to this,” he contented.
Committee members said the unfair article should be abolished if it is found to be unconstitutional or otherwise changed so as to become applicable only to appeals for a violent regime change followed by concrete actions posing a public threat.
However, a number of politicians and human rights activists attending the roundtable spoke against abolishing or changing the penal code article as a way of solving the problem of political prisoners.
Civil rights lawyer Vartan Harutiunian said if Article 301 is removed, the authorities will find another way to get a disagreeable politician imprisoned. He cited the example of former foreign minister Alexander Arzumanian, who is currently kept in the National Security Service’s jail on money laundering charges.
“There can be good and bad articles in the criminal code. They are used for ill purposes only by illegitimate authorities. If Armenia has a government formed in a democratic election, any bad article will remain on paper, but will never be applied,” Harutiunian said.
Garnik Markarian, who leads the small opposition “Homeland and Honor” party, shared this opinion. “It is a moment before the presidential election to get sober; it is time for those who have proved their worth in action to unite and get rid of the regime,” he said.
Meanwhile, Armenia Helsinki Committee Chairman Avetik Ishkhanian thinks the problem of political prisoners should not be linked with the push for a power change.
“It is up to the politicians to think about a power change. But do not let them connect political prisoners with their struggle,” he said. “Sometimes I get the impression that media are trying to use political prisoners as a weapon against the government, which I consider to be wrong. I think our job is to struggle for every political prisoner to be released as soon as possible,” Ishkhanian said.