By Emil Danielyan and Hovannes Shoghikian
President Serzh Sarkisian said Armenian prosecutors and courts should not imprison anyone for their political views as trials continued on Monday of opposition activists challenging the legitimacy of his victory in last February’s disputed presidential election.
“It is important that we be guided by criminal law and that there be no political decisions,” Sarkisian said in reference to dozens of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian arrested in the wake of the vote.
“No one who committed a grave committed must stay unpunished,” he added. “However, a person must not be sentenced for their political convictions and beliefs.”
Sarkisian spoke as he chaired a meeting of a working group of senior law-enforcement officials and lawmakers tasked with ensuring his administration’s compliance with the April 17 resolution on Armenia adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). One of the key demands contained in the resolution is the “urgent release of the persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges.”
Only a handful of prominent oppositionists have been released pending trial so far. Dozens of others remain in jail for their alleged involvement in the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot police and opposition protesters demanding a re-run of the February 19 election. Some have already been given prison sentences on these and other charges related to Ter-Petrosian’s campaign of post-election protests. Court hearings on these cases, accompanied by mass hunger strikes and courtroom protests by angry Ter-Petrosian supporters, have taken place on a virtually daily basis over the past month.
As Sarkisian stressed the need to avoid handing down politically motivated rulings, a Yerevan court prolonged by two more months the pre-trial arrest of Aram Karapetian, the outspoken leader of the opposition Nor Zhamanakner party. Karapetian was arrested on February 24 and charged in connection with his incriminatory questions publicly addressed to Sarkisian and former President Robert Kocharian. He arrived at the court building under police guard from a Yerevan hospital where he was taken last week with serious heart problems.
Also on Monday another Yerevan court began the trial of Vartan Jahangirian, the brother of Armenia’s former Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian who publicly voiced support for Ter-Petrosian and denounced Sarkisian’s election victory as fraudulent. The brothers were arrested outside Yerevan as they rode in a car on February 23.
Vartan Jahangirian was shot and seriously wounded by a police officer during the arrest in still unclear circumstances. The police say the shooting was accidental. He is accused of putting up resistance to law-enforcement officers.
Walking on crutches and looking frail, Jahangirian was greeted by opposition supporters with rapturous applause as he slowly made his way into the courtroom. His lawyers rejected the accusations as baseless and politically motivated.
In his remarks released by the presidential press service, Sarkisian said he is committed to meeting the demands contained in the PACE resolution because he believes that they are “in Armenia’s interests.” He specifically accepted the PACE call for the launch of an independent inquiry into the deadly unrest in Yerevan.
The presidential working group has suggested that it be conducted by an ah hoc commission formed by the Armenian parliament. While backing the idea, Sarkisian said that the commission should not “get into details of the ongoing criminal case” and should instead “make political evaluations and present proposals.”
Ter-Petrosian and his allies regard the criminal proceedings as a government witch-hunt designed to enforce the results of what they saw was a fraudulent election.
Sarkisian also endorsed the working group’s proposal to give more rights to the tiny opposition minority in the National Assembly and ensure greater “pluralism” in the news coverage of Armenian state television. He further confirmed plans to set up a consultative “public council” comprising “various strata of society,” including opposition forces not represented in the parliament. “We stand for dialogue and want to solve problems through dialogue,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Jahangirian pictured in the court.)