By Tatevik Lazarian and Anush Martirosian
Armenia’s state human rights defender, Armen Harutiunian, on Thursday dismissed opposition criticism of his recent activities as a manifestation of “neo-Bolshevik” thinking which he believes is shared by the government.
Harutiunian has come under opposition fire over his reaction to allegations that at least three of the opposition members arrested following last February’s presidential election were beaten up in Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison on December 23. Harutiunian expressed serious concern about the allegations, leading President Serzh Sarkisian to order a special inquiry at Nubarashen.
The ombudsman agreed to take part in it, a move that prompted criticism from former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK). In a statement on Wednesday, the opposition alliance dismissed the probe as a smokescreen for a government cover-up of the alleged torture. It said the authorities should instead launch criminal proceedings against the prison administration.
A separate statement issued by 42 arrested oppositionists went further, branding Harutiunian as an advocate of the “kleptocratic regime” and demanding his resignation. “His main goal today is to cover up blatant human rights violations and the existence of political prisoners in Armenia and thereby spare the regime sanctions [by the Council of Europe,]” they charged.
The pro-Ter-Petrosian daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” claimed on Thursday that Harutiunian has been offered the post of justice minister or prosecutor-general in return for helping the Armenian authorities avoid the sanctions.
Harutiunian brushed aside the allegations. “I just don’t know how I can influence the Council of Europe to avoid imposing sanctions,” he told RFE/RL. “May be they [the opposition] know.”
Harutiunian said that both the opposition and the authorities have put pressure on him since the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan. The ombudsman strongly questioned the official version of those events at the time, incurring the ire of outgoing President Robert Kocharian. Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General and Justice Ministry subsequently issued lengthy reports designed to challenge his judgment and justify the use of force against opposition protesters.
Harutiunian has also been critical of the arrests and controversial trials of dozens of Ter-Petrosian loyalists, while declining to refer to them as political prisoners. “In an atmosphere of political intolerance and mutual hatred among various political camps, it is normal that the prosecutor’s office says that the human rights defender must be prosecuted and then some time later the Armenian National Congress demands that he resign,” he said on Thursday. “I am used to this to neo-Bolshevik notion that if your opinion doesn’t correspond to ours then you are a bad guy,” he added.
The HAK clarified later on Thursday that unlike most of the jailed oppositionists, it did not demand Harutiunian’s resignation. A leading member of the opposition alliance, Levon Zurabian, also told RFE/RL that he has received a letter from another detainee, Vardges Gaspari, claiming that the latter too was ill-treated by security officers on December 23.
“This is related to the fact that the authorities are putting pressure on political prisoners to send pardon requests to the presidential administration,” said Zurabian, “This practice is unacceptable.”
The authorities did not immediately react to the claims. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry department managing Armenia’s prisons said only that the official inquiry into the alleged Nubarashen beatings is still in progress.