A well-known maverick activist controversially arrested and prosecuted by the Armenian authorities claimed to have been assaulted in prison as he was forced to undergo a psychiatric examination on Wednesday.
The allegations voiced by Vargdes Gaspari through his lawyer caused outrage in Armenian opposition and civic circles which consider him a political prisoner. Opposition deputies made angry statements on the parliament floor, demanding his immediate release from custody.
Several youth activists, meanwhile, lay down on the ground in front of the presidential palace in Yerevan, imitating, out of solidarity, Gaspari’s trademark method of protest. They were detained by police as a result.
Gaspari has for years lain down, usually during anti-government protests organized by opposition or non-partisan groups, to protest against various government policies. He has frequently defied police orders and been briefly detained as a result.
Earlier this year he was charged with insulting a police officer during one of those incidents. He refused to willingly attend court sessions on the case, leading police officers to carry him into a Yerevan court before every hearing. Gaspari lay down inside the courtroom as well.
The eccentric activist was arrested and charged late last week with insulting the judge dealing with the case. He allegedly labelled her as a “mean and undignified agent covering up government crimes.”
About a dozen Armenian human rights watchdogs and other civic groups issued a joint statement late on Tuesday condemning Gaspari’s arrest as politically motivated and demanding his immediate release.
Gaspari’s lawyer, Tigran Yegorian, claimed the following day that his client has gone on hunger strike after being assaulted and verbally abused by cellmates at Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison. “They pour cold water on him, beat him, then again pour cold water and swear at him,” he said.
Yegorian spoke to journalists as he accompanied Gaspari at a psychiatric clinic where the activist was taken from Nubarashen. The lawyer said investigators decided to subject him to a “forensic-psychological examination” after Gaspari asked one of them whether he was involved in a 2008 post-election crackdown on the Armenian opposition.
Gaspari looked frail and had trouble keeping his balance as police officers escorted him into the clinic. “I’m very sick,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Both Yegorian and some opposition parliamentarians condemned the psychiatric examination, drawing parallels with the infamous Soviet practice of locking up dissidents in mental hospitals. The lawmakers expressed serious concern at the treatment of Gaspari during the government’s question-and-answer session in the parliament.
One of them, Edmon Marukian, also said: “The court’s decision to arrest him was baseless and illegal.”
Another lawmaker, Zaruhi Postanjian, demanded an official investigation into the alleged violence when she confronted Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian. She referred to Gaspari as “one of Armenia’s most honest and decent citizens.”
Hovannisian told Postanjian that her ministry, which oversees Armenia’s prisons, is investigating the allegations. “He lay down on the ground in his prison cell and that caused some tension with other inmates,” she said. “He has now been transferred to a separate cell which he shares with another person.”
In a statement issued later in the day, the Armenian Justice Ministry said Gaspari ended the hunger strike after the transfer.