An Armenian teenage activist briefly disrupted a European football championship qualifier in Yerevan on Saturday to demand the release of his father jailed for organizing a violent anti-government demonstration in 2013.
Shahen Harutiunian invaded the pitch at the Republican Stadium during the Armenian national team’s match against Portugal with an English-language banner that read: “Freedom for Shant Harutiunian and all political prisoners in Armenia.”
Portugal’s world-famous star player Cristiano Ronaldo picked up the banner and looked at it as the 17-year-old, who wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with his father’s picture, was overpowered and led away by police officers. The latter struggled to catch Harutiunian as he ran around the pitch mid-way through the game which Portugal won 3-2.
Harutiunian was set free after spending more than one hour at a police station in Yerevan. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) after his release, he said he wanted to use Ronaldo’s presence in Armenia to attract greater public attention to the plight of his father. He said he is only sorry for not making his placard big enough to be seen by some 15,000 spectators who packed the stadium.
The unprecedented protest stemmed from controversial prison sentences that were given to 12 men arrested in Yerevan in November 2013. The defendants led by Shahen’s father Shant Harutiunian, a flamboyant nationalist activist, were among several dozen protesters who tried to march towards President Serzh Sarkisian’s offices in what Shant called a “revolution of values.” Shahen was also among them.
Riot 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. Several police officers were reportedly injured during the incident.
The arrested men as well as Shahen went on trial in June 2014. A district court in Yerevan sentenced them to between 1 and 7 years in prison in October 2014. Shant Harutiunian was jailed for 6 years while his son received a suspended 4-year sentence.
Armenia’s appeals courts subsequently upheld the verdicts condemned by the defendants as well as many civic and mainstream opposition activists as politically motivated. They consider the jailed men political prisoners, a description categorically rejected by the Armenian authorities.
The pitch invasion came four days after Shant Harutiunian went on hunger strike at Yerevan’s Vartashen prison, demanding that he be transferred to another, smaller prison cell for security reasons. Nikol Pashinian, an opposition parliamentarian, was allowed to visit him earlier on Saturday.
Pashinian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) afterwards that Harutiunian has “no problems” with the prison administration and cellmates but sees a serious threat to his life emanating from Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS). He said the prison chief, Manuk Poghosian, assured him that the jailed oppositionist’s fears are unfounded. Nevertheless, Poghosian said the Vartashen administration is looking into Harutiunian’s demand and will decide by Tuesday whether or not to accept it, according to Pashinian.