Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian on Friday praised environmental activists campaigning for the preservation of a public park in Yerevan but warned them against attempting to dismantle kiosks controversially built there.
In a video interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service broadcast live through its website (Azatutyun.am), Tovmasian said their increasingly vocal struggle involving mostly young people is a “very good phenomenon.”
“If this movement existed in the 1990s or a bit later, we would have had a very different Yerevan,” he said, referring to serious damage which redevelopment projects have inflicted on the city’s green areas over the past decade.
Tovmasian at the same time warned some organizers of the two-month protests staged in Mashtots Park not to act on their threats to dismantle nearly a dozen shops constructed there. He said they would be liable for arrest and prosecution on criminal charges.
The Armenian police issued a similar warning in a written statement on Friday. It urged the environmental campaigners to “display prudence and refrain from abusing their civil rights.” Or else, the statement said, police officers would be ready to “neutralize any intent of illegal action.”
The statement came two days after a group of older public figures broke through a police cordon to occupy some of the under-construction shops with the stated aim of tearing them down. Riot police used force against them but avoided any arrests.
The campaigners say that the Yerevan municipality authorized the construction in the small park in breach of environmental protection regulations. The municipal administration denies that, saying that it is only protecting the property rights of businesspeople whose kiosks located elsewhere in the city center were torn down in January.
Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian has also promised that the kiosks will stand in Mashtots Park for up to three years and not damage any trees. The Armenian government backs this stance.
Speaking at RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau, Tovmasian answered a wide range of questions sent by ordinary Armenians through Facebook. One of them was about human rights ombudsman Karen Andreasian’s criticism of the Armenian judiciary. In a recent annual report, Andreasian said Armenian courts often hand down unfair rulings and do not enforce the due process of law.
Tovmasian dismissed the criticism, questioning the ombudsman’s competence. “When the human rights defender starts talking about why the Philharmonic Concert Hall [in Yerevan] was not repaired and views that as a human rights violation or asks why different notary offices set different tariffs for different services … he somewhat devaluates that report,” he said.
“The main significance of this institution [of the ombudsman] is conditioned by how authoritative and impartial person who leads it is, and there is a problem with that,” added the minister.