Authorities in Armenia have controversially barred Nikol Pashinian, an outspoken opposition figure and newspaper editor tried for his role in last year’s post-election unrest in Yerevan, from standing an upcoming parliamentary by-election.
His lawyer said on Monday that she will challenge the “illegal and illogical” move in the Court of Appeals.
Pashinian announced his decision to contest the January 10 vote late last month, less than two weeks after going on trial on charges of organizing the March 1, 2008 “mass disturbances” that left 10 people dead and more than 200 others injured. The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), of which is a prominent member, was quick to endorse his candidacy.
Under Armenian law, only those citizens who have permanently resided in the country for at least five years preceding an election can run for the National Assembly. Their residency has to be certified, in writing, by the police Department of Passports and Visas (OVIR).
The department refused to provide such a document to Pashinian’s representatives last week. In a written statement, the OVIR branch in Pashinian’s native town of Ijevan said that the editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily was absent from the country from February 26, 2008 to July 7, 2009 and is therefore not eligible to seek a parliament seat.
The explanation was at odds with the widely known fact that Pashinian was one of the main speakers at daily opposition rallies that were forcibly ended by security forces in the early hours of March 2, 2008. What is more, the main accusation leveled against him is organization of the March 1-2 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces.
Pashinian went into hiding after the deadly violence. He surrendered to law-enforcement authorities and was arrested in the presence of several journalists, including an RFE/RL correspondent, on July 1 this year. The OVIR statement claimed, however, that he remained on the run until July 7.
The oppositionist’s attorney, Lusine Sahakian, ridiculed the explanation. “A question arises: who did they arrest on July 1 and how did they accuse Nikol Pashinian of organizing mass disturbances if he was absent from the republic?” she said.
The OVIR chief, Norayr Muradkhanian, acknowledged the factual errors late last week, saying that the statement issued by his Ijevan subordinates was based on “incomplete information.” He did not elaborate, however.
In a series of lengthy articles published by “Haykakan Zhamanak” before his surrender, Pashinian claimed to have fled Armenia and circled the world with a fake Serbian passport. He gave detailed accounts of his purported adventures abroad.
Sahakian insisted, however, that her client never left the country and that the onus is on the police to prove the opposite. “The police must prove that Nikol Pashinian was not in the republic,” she told RFE/RL. “The police can’t produce such proof because he was in the republic.”
Sahakian also argued that Pashinian could have gone abroad after February 2008 only illegally, something which Armenian law deems a serious crime. “In that case, he should been charged will illegally crossing the border but he wasn’t,” she said.
“Cleary they are doing everything to impede Nikol Pashinian’s registration as a candidate,” added the lawyer. “But with such illegal and illogical statements they are putting themselves in an absurd situation.”
The police declined on Monday to provide further clarifications on the matter.
The January 10 by-election will take place in a Yerevan constituency that was until recently represented in the National Assembly by Khachatur Sukiasian, another prominent HAK member. Sukiasian resigned his parliament seat in October in protest against the parliament majority’s March 2008 decision to lift his and his opposition colleague’s immunity from prosecution.
A total of five individuals have expressed their intention to contest the election. One of them, former Transport Minister Eduard Madatian, reportedly enjoys the tacit backing of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
Madatian had fled Armenia in late 2004 to avoid prosecution for allegedly masterminding what the authorities said was a failed attempt on the life of then President Robert Kocharian and other top officials. He returned home in August last year after the criminal case was dropped for still unknown reasons. Whether he will be registered as an election candidate remains to be seen.