Human Rights Watch (HRW), a respected New York-based watchdog, urged the Armenian authorities on Thursday to release five leading members of a radical opposition group campaigning for regime change in Armenia.
In a letter to Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian, HRW said Zhirayr Sefilian, the top leader of the Founding Parliament movement, and his four associates were arrested on April 7 because of their “peaceful political beliefs.”
“Given Founding Parliament’s nonviolent views and in the absence of a lawful and credible basis for detention, we believe that the men should be freed, pending investigation,” read the letter signed by Hugh Williamson, the HRW director for Europe and Central Asia, and his deputy Rachel Denber.
“We are also concerned that the men, who are currently under investigation, are in custody with convicted criminals in violation of international standards on pre-trial detention,” it said.
The five oppositionists were arrested ahead of the April 24 start of what Founding Parliament hoped will be a campaign of nonstop street protests aimed at forcing President Serzh Sarkisian to resign. They were charged with planning to provoke “mass disturbances” in Yerevan on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey marked on April 24.
Law enforcement-authorities confiscated several knives and dozens of sticks and batons during searches carried out in the suspects’ homes and the Founding Parliament’s offices. They claimed that those objects were “designed to inflict corporal injuries” during riots. They also portrayed a Founding Parliament pamphlet as another piece of incriminating evidence.
The HRW representative challenged the credibility of the criminal case brought against the oppositionists, suggesting that it is “intended to interfere with their right to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.”
“Founding Parliament’s booklet and advertisement for the rally call for civil disobedience and peaceful political change,” they wrote to Kostanian. They also argued that Founding Parliament’s April 24 rally in Yerevan’s Erebuni suburb was sanctioned by municipal authorities.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General could not be immediately reached for comment on the HRW letter. The Investigative Committee, another law-enforcement body in charge of the case, has repeatedly rejected opposition claims that the charges levelled against the Founding Parliament leaders are baseless and politically motivated.
Hayk Grigorian, a lawyer for the five arrested men, hailed the HRW calls addressed to the authorities in Yerevan. “The international human rights campaigners said what we have been saying: the case is political and the arrests are unjustified,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).