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First Armenian Oppositionists Freed Under Amnesty


Armenia -- Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian (R) and a group of his supporters released from jail pose for a photograph on 22Jun2009

The first groups of Armenian opposition figures imprisoned following last year’s disputed presidential election were set free on Monday as part of a general amnesty declared by the authorities after more than a year of international pressure. (UPDATED)

Four of them, including parliament deputies Hakob Hakobian and Miasnik Malkhasian as well as former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, walked free from a Yerevan district court in the morning immediately after the end of their separate trials. They were found guilty of organizing the deadly post-election violence in the capital and sentenced to five years in prison. Suren Sirunian, another opposition activist who was tried together with Arzumanian, got a four-year prison sentence on the same charge.

Court judges ruled that all four men qualify for the amnesty and ordered their release. The orders prompted rapturous applause and cheers from dozens of opposition supporters that packed the courtrooms.

Armenia -- Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian (R) greets Aleksandr Arzumanian, one of his close associates released from jail on 22Jun2009
Eleven other opposition members, who got prison sentences late last year and early this, were released from Yerevan’s Vartashen prison in the evening. They headed straight to a small public park in the city center to receive a hero’s welcome from opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and more than two hundred jubilant opposition supporters. Arzumanian and the two opposition deputies also joined the small crowd that repeatedly burst into “Levon!” “Victory!” chants.

The amnesty initiated by President Serzh Sarkisian and approved by the National Assembly on Friday is expected to lead to the release of at least 34 of more than 50 Ter-Petrosian loyalists remaining in jail more than 15 months after the February 2008 ballot and ensuing unrest. Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) has condemned the authorities for their refusal to free all individuals regarded as political prisoners by the opposition and human rights groups.


Armenia -- Opposition MP Miasnik Malkhasian is hugged by a supporter after his release from prison on June 22, 2009.
The oppositionists freed in the court pledged to appeal against the verdicts and seek their acquittal by higher courts. “This verdict is illegal,” said Malkhasian. “We will be demanding my acquittal. I will remain determined till the end.”

“Thank you all. I’m sure our struggle is only just beginning,” Sirunian said as he and Arzumanian were welcomed by supporters moments later. “I consider this verdict illegal,” he told RFE/RL.

The four men first met up outside a statue in central Yerevan that was the focal point of a vast area barricaded by thousands of opposition protesters on March 1, 2008. Eight protesters and two police servicemen were killed in subsequent pitched battles.

They then traveled to Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan where another opposition parliamentarian, Sasun Mikaelian, heard the verdict in his case handed down by a local court. Mikaelian loudly sang patriotic songs and made angry comments as the presiding judge sentenced him to eight years’ imprisonment on charges of riot organization and illegal arms possession.

Under the terms of the amnesty, oppositionists jailed for more than five years are not eligible for early release. That Mikaelian will not be set free was made clear by Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian on Friday.

Armenia -- Police confront an opposition supporter outside a court in Abovian on 22Jun2009
The ruling did not seem to take the oppositionist by surprise. “Everything can be expected in this country,” he told RFE/RL as security officials led him out of the courtroom. Mikaelian insisted that the case against him is based on “lies and fabrications.” Dozens of his supporters angrily protested in and outside the Abovian court in the meantime.

The amnesty, which will affect a total of about 2,000 persons serving prison sentences for various crimes, is widely linked with this week’s session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The Strasbourg-based body is scheduled to again discuss on Wednesday Armenia’s compliance with its resolutions demanding the immediate release of all opposition members arrested on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated” charges. It has previously threatened to impose sanctions against Yerevan.
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