An appeals court in Yerevan on Wednesday granted bail to an opposition party member charged in connection with a recent rally.
Armen Martirosian, of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, was arrested on July 29 along with two other party members and another opposition activist, for allegedly organizing mass disturbances during a public protest held that night in favor of an armed group loyal to a fringe opposition movement that had seized a police station in Yerevan and was presenting political demands to the government.
The rally took a violent turn as riot police and plainclothes men charged at protesters and journalists, using stun grenades, flash bangs, sound bombs and other nonlethal devices to disperse the demonstration in a narrow street of a Yerevan neighborhood overlooking the standoff area.
Nearly 70 people, including some journalists, were hurt in the clashes that prosecutors say were provoked by demonstrators. Martirosian, who conducted negotiations with senior police officers shortly before the dispersal, and the other oppositionists – Zharangutyun press secretary David Sanasarian and civic society relations officer Hovsep Khurshudian, as well as Rise Up, Armenia movement activist Andrias Ghukasian – deny the charges largely based on testimonies of police officers.
The lawyers of the accused oppositionists who face up to 10 years in prison claim there are no legal grounds for their prosecution and describe their clients as victims of political persecution.
Meanwhile, in a statement on Tuesday Zharangutyun, which is a parliamentary party, said it will skip upcoming local elections considering that its leading members were imprisoned and were prosecuted on “fabricated charges”.
Martirosian’s lawyer Givi Hovhannisian said that under the judge’s decision his client will pay 1 million drams (about $2,100) and will be freed pending trial.
He described the court ruling, which was met by Martirosian’s family and supporters with applause, as “the lesser of two evils”. “We are already glad if a man is released [pending trial], but if we regard the matter from the legal perspective, we are not satisfied, because there are no grounds [for suspecting Martirosian of committing a crime]. But now it’s half a step forward for us. Let’s see how things progress,” the lawyer said.
According to him, the court’s move was clearly based on a “political” decision, since the same grounds for granting bail to Martirosian also existed before.
“It is not only my opinion… Martirosian was clearly arrested and charged illegally, because there are video recordings proving him innocent,” Hovhannisian said.
Zharangutyun’s lawmaker Zaruhi Postanjian also believes that the court should have dismissed the case altogether. “I don’t think that we should be satisfied with this decision. True, at this moment we will at least have our colleague next to us, but prosecution against him should be stopped altogether,” said Postanjian.
The party’s leader Raffi Hovannisian, who also came to support Martirosian at the court-room, argued that the prosecution of all four oppositionists was illegal.
“The irony is that it is these guys who have for years defended the rights of others, one of them saved a police officer’s life, and now, exercising their constitutional right, they themselves appeared in jail, facing 4 to 10 years in prison, in their own country. I can’t think of a more absurd […] reality,” he said.
After leaving the Nubarashen prison in the evening, Martirosian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) that he considered himself and the other oppositionists arrested on charges of organizing mass disturbances to be victims of political persecution. He insisted that they all were engaged in organizing a peaceful protest.
The hearings of appeals filed by Sanasarian, Khurshudian and Ghukasian are due to take place in the coming days.
It is yet unclear whether Zharangutyun will reconsider its decision to skip the elections if all three of its members are freed on bail or otherwise.