By Karine KalantarianAn Armenian judge on Wednesday ended the controversial collective trial of seven opposition figures arrested following last year’s post-election clashes in Yerevan after prosecutors dropped coup charges leveled against them.
The new twist in the so-called “case of the seven” resulted from the newly enacted amendments to Articles 225 and 300 of the Armenian Criminal Code used against the prominent supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian. The articles deal with provocation of street violence and “usurpation of state authority by force” respectively. One of the amendments passed by the Armenian parliament on March 18 divided Article 300 into three sections detailing various forms of power usurpation and toughening punishment for some of them.
Citing the amendments, the chief trial prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan, said during a chaotic court session on Wednesday that the defendants, among them three parliament deputies and a former foreign minister, will now face no accusations stemming from Article 300 but must continue to be tried for organizing the March 1, 2008 “mass disturbances” in Yerevan. Two of them, Miasnik Malkhasian and Sasun Mikaelian, also remain accused of resisting police and illegally possessing weapons respectively, said Piloyan. The prosecutor’s speech was drowned out by furious shouts from defendants.
The judge in the case, Mnatsakan Martirosian, responded by ruling that the seven oppositionists should stand fresh and separate trials for orchestrating the vicious clashes between Ter-Petrosian supporters and security forces that left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured. Justifying the surprise decision, Martirosian cited the complexity of the case involving about 400 witnesses and “victims” as well as the need to speed up judicial proceedings.
With the riot charge punishable by between four to ten years in prison under the amended Article 225, Martirosian declined to free the defendants pending further trial. It is therefore unlikely that any of them will be set free before this month’s session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) which is due to discuss Yerevan’s compliance with its January resolution on Armenia.
The resolution deplored the continuing imprisonment of dozens of Armenian opposition members. Still, the Strasbourg-based assembly backed down on its threats to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members, citing the Armenian authorities’ pledge to amend the Criminal Code. It interpreted the pledge as an indication that the authorities will finally free all oppositionists jailed on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.”
Meanwhile, the defense lawyers in the trial criticized Martirosian’s decision and said they will likely appeal against it. “The court made a decision that took both the defense lawyers and prosecutors by surprise,” one of them, Melanya Arustamian, told RFE/RL.
“They have split up the case because it was having too much public resonance,” said Vartuhi Elbakian.
According to another attorney, Hovik Abrahamian, the judge dealt a serious blow to government claims that the deadly unrest in Yerevan was the result of an opposition conspiracy to seize power by violent means. He said the implication is that there was never a concerted opposition effort to trigger the worst street violence in Armenia’s history. “The court has proved that … the whole thing is a fabrication,” claimed Arsenian.