A court in Yerevan on Friday handed prison sentences ranging from 1 to 7 years to a prominent political activist and 11 other men who were arrested while clashing with riot police during a violent anti-government demonstration last year.
Another, 15-year-old defendant, who avoided pre-trial arrest, received a suspended 4-year sentence on the same charges of “hooliganism” which Armenian human rights campaigners and some opposition groups regard as politically motivated.
The defendants led by Shant Harutiunian, a veteran nationalist activist, were among several dozen protesters who tried to march towards President Serzh Sarkisian’s offices in what their flamboyant leader called a “revolution of values.” Police used force to stop the crowd armed with sticks and homemade stun grenades from approaching the presidential palace after rallying in Yerevan’s Liberty Square to denounce a government which they consider corrupt and undemocratic.
The arrested men as well as Harutiunian’s 15-year-old son Shahen went on trial in June. Virtually all of them pleaded not guilty to the hooliganism charges which Mnatsakan Martirosian, the presiding judge who has rarely challenged prosecutors, eventually found substantiated.
One defendant, Vahe Mkrtchian, was also convicted of assaulting police officers and received the harshest punishment: 7 years in prison. Shant Harutiunian and another man got 6-year jail terms. Seven others were sentenced to between 4 and 5.5 years’ imprisonment.
Most of the defendants remained defiant in their concluding remarks in the court made before the announcement of the verdict. Harutiunian’s 90-minute statement, which amounted to a political speech, was cut short by the judge despite his vehement objections.
“I only feel guilty before my fallen and living comrades, whose dreams and wishes we have left unfulfilled because this is not a homeland that we had dreamed about,” Vartan Vartanian, a retired lieutenant-colonel and veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, said before being sentenced to 5 years in prison.
“I will keep fighting no matter how many times I am prosecuted. So you won’t correct me, Your Honor,” said Alek Poghosian, a father of five who also took part in the November 2013 protest and was given 4 years behind bars.
Martirosian heard angry cries and curses from relatives of the defendants present in the courtroom after he read out his verdict later in the day. Most of the defendants are likely to appeal against it.
President Serzh Sarkisian defended the high-profile case during a recent visit to the United States. Speaking at a question-and-answer session in New York’s Columbia University, Sarkisian referred to Harutiunian and his arrested supporters as “criminals.” The remark prompted strong protests from the defendants’ lawyers, who accused the president of violating their clients’ presumption of innocence and pressuring the court to find them guilty.