The head of a non-governmental body monitoring prison conditions in Armenia has given weight to jailed opposition leader and newspaper editor Nikol Pashinian’s claims that he has been unable to send letters in the past few months.
Pashinian wrote articles for his “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily on a virtually daily basis until being transferred to a high-security jail near the northwestern town of Artik in late November. He was taken there after being allegedly mistreated at another prison.
“Haykakan Zhamanak” has published virtually no new articles Pashinian since then. The outspoken oppositionist, who is serving a 7-year prison sentence for his alleged role in the 2008 post-election violence in Yerevan, claims that the Artik prison administration is blocking his private and business correspondence with the outside world in violation of Armenian law.
Artur Sakunts, a human rights activist heading the monitoring group, visited the prison together with another group member earlier this month. In a February 14 letter to Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian published on Thursday, he said that the prison administration has “blatantly violated” Pashinian’s legal right to send out letters and other documents.
“During the visit, we discovered that the prison administration is refusing to accept and send out five letters kept by Nikol Pashinian, including an appeal to the head of our monitoring group,” Sakunts told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The Armenian Justice Ministry was quick to brush aside the claims. The ministry spokeswoman, Karine Kalantarian, said that Pashinian himself avoids sending his correspondence through the administration and usually prefers to distribute it through “representatives of domestic and international organizations” periodically visiting him.
“Thus, the convict is trying to create an illusion of illegalities committed against him,” Kalantarian charged in a statement. She also said that Sakunts did not ask Artik prison officials to register correspondence submitted by Pashinian.
A Justice Ministry department managing Armenia’s penitentiary institutions likewise denied Pashinian claims on Wednesday. A department spokesman accused him of misleading the public.
Pashinian was among several prominent opposition figures who went into hiding in March 2008 following a harsh government crackdown on supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian demanding the re-run of a disputed presidential election. He surrendered to law-enforcement authorities in July 2009 and was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of stirring up the March 2008 “mass disturbances” in Yerevan that left ten people dead.
In accordance with a June 2009 amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities, Pashinian will serve only half of the sentence which he and his supporters consider politically motivated. Last December, dozens of pro-establishment scholars, writers and other intellectuals called on the authorities to immediately set him free.
The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, also called for the release of Pashinian and about a dozen other Ter-Petrosian loyalists remaining in jail when he visited Yerevan last month. “I feel that these people should not be kept in prison because the sentences against them had a political consideration, political dimension behind them,” he said.