Human Rights Watch demanded on Friday the release of an Armenian opposition activist who was arrested last week while attempting to place a Christmas tree in Yerevan together with other members of an opposition movement.
The several dozen activists of the New Armenia Public Salvation Front scuffled with riot police early on January 1 as they tried to celebrate the New Year in Liberty Square, the scene of a series of anti-government rallies held by the grouping in December. Five of them were detained as a resulted.
All of the activists except Gevorg Safarian were set free in the following hours. Safarian was charged with assaulting a police officer and remanded in a two-month pre-trial custody by a Yerevan court. The charges, rejected by New Armenia as baseless and politically motivated, carry up to five years in prison.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the pre-trial arrest as “wholly unjustified,” saying that Safarian is prosecuted for his political views and should therefore be released from custody pending investigation. “The authorities should also review police conduct at the gathering and possible police interference with the rights to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly,” it said in a statement.
“In the absence of any compelling reason for keeping Safarian behind bars, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the authorities are targeting – and jailing – him to interfere with his peaceful political activism,” Giorgi Gogia, HRW’s director for the South Caucasus, was quoted by the statement as saying.
The New York-based human rights watchdog also publicized a letter which the head of its Europe and Central Asia division, Hugh Williamson, sent to Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian, on Tuesday.
“Human Rights Watch is concerned that in reality the authorities are targeting Safarian for his membership in a political opposition group and his peaceful political beliefs,” Williamson wrote.
“We urge you to release Safarian from custody, pending a prompt, impartial, and credible investigation into the charges against him deriving from the January 1, 2016 incident,” he added.
Safarian and four other New Armenia leaders already spent a month in detention this spring ahead of demonstrations aimed at forcing President Serzh Sarkisian to resign. HRW expressed concern at their arrest at the time.