A retired army colonel who was jailed two years ago after organizing anti-government protests in Yerevan went on a hunger strike on Friday in protest against the Armenian authorities’ refusal to set him free on parole.
Volodya Avetisian was sentenced last year to 6 years in prison on controversial charges of “embezzling” $2,000 from another man. He strongly denied the charges as government retribution for street protests by Armenian veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war demanding a sizable increase in their modest pensions.
Avetisian launched that campaign in May 2013 with a lone protest in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. He was joined by hundreds of other war veterans in the following weeks. They staged a series of demonstrations outside key government buildings in Yerevan. Avetisian was arrested in September 2013.
The father of six became eligible for parole earlier this year. He has since twice petitioned a relevant state commission to allow his early release from prison. The commission has refused to grant him parole. Its most recent decision was made this week.
Avetisian’s wife, Margarita Baghramian, said he phoned her on Friday morning to inform her about that decision and the start of his hunger strike. “I told him not to do that but he said ‘No, I must go ahead,’” Baghramian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Gagik Sarukhanian, a friend of Avetisian’s leading a public campaign for his release, condemned the state commission’s refusal to free him as politically motivated. Sarukhanian claimed that President Serzh Sarkisian does not want Avetisian to regain freedom ahead of the December 6 referendum on his controversial amendments to the Armenian constitution.
“Freeing a person like Volodya at this juncture would have meant reinforcing the opposition,” he said.