Law-enforcement authorities set free on Friday a prominent Armenian civic activist who has led, together with radical opposition members, demonstrations held in Yerevan in support of gunmen demanding President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation.
Levon Barseghian, who runs the Asparez Journalists’ Club and an eponymous newspaper in Gyumri, was among 64 people who were detained by police following one such protest staged on Tuesday evening near a police compound seized by the gunmen on July 17. All of them except Barseghian and a senior member of the Founding Parliament radical opposition group were released a few hours later.
A bitter critic of the Armenian government, Barseghian was one of the main speakers at the rallies held there on a daily basis. In his speeches, he harshly criticized Sarkisian and voiced support for the armed members of Founding Parliament holed up in the compound.
The gunmen, who killed one police officer on July 17, want Sarkisian to free Founding Parliament’s jailed leader, Zhirayr Sefilian, and step down.
Sefilian’s group has been particularly critical of the Armenian president’s stated commitment to a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict sought by the United States, Russia and France.
Barseghian was formally placed under arrest on Wednesday evening, with Armenia’s Investigative Committee saying that he could be prosecuted for carrying a pocket knife. The arrest was condemned by Founding Parliament, its opposition allies as well as Armenia’s leading media associations and civil rights groups.
In a joint statement released on Thursday, 13 such groups demanded Barseghian’s immediate release, saying that the “fabricated” criminal case is government retribution for his active involvement in the protests.
Barseghian was released on Friday afternoon shortly after the Investigative Committee said it will not press charges against him because forensic experts have concluded that his folding knife cannot be considered a bladed weapon.
Barseghian struck a defiant note when he emerged from the committee’s office in Yerevan’s Shengavit district, demonstrating the small knife and saying that he will keep carrying it. “They couldn’t even fabricate a case against me,” he told reporters.
Barseghian also said that he was kept in police custody for 16 hours before being formally arrested. Under Armenian law, police must charge a person or declare them a criminal suspect no more than three hours after detaining them.
The Gyumri-based activist also accused the police of subjecting him to “inhuman treatment” at a Shengavit police station. He claimed that police officers refused to bring him drinking water or give him access to their toilet.