The trial began on Wednesday of an Armenian opposition activist accused of aiding gunmen that seized a police station in Yerevan last year to demand President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation.
The arrested activist, Andrias Ghukasian, was one of the organizers of demonstrations held in support of the gunmen affiliated with a fringe opposition group. The charges levelled against him stem from one of those rallies that was organized on July 29, 2016 in Yerevan’s Sari Tagh neighborhood close to the besieged police base.
Riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the protesters after they refused to march back to the city center. Several organizers of the protest were arrested and charged with provoking “mass disturbances.” All of them except Ghukasian were subsequently released from custody.
Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) claims that Ghukasian urged supporters to throw stones at the police officers in Sari Tagh. The 47-year-old also stands accused of planning to have the protesters break through a police cordon, join the gunmen and thus prolong their standoff with security forces, which left three police officers dead.
Ghukasian denies the accusations as politically motivated. His lawyers say that they are based on false testimony given by a man linked to the police. They say the testimony runs counter to videos of the July 2016 protests featuring Ghukasian.
Ghukasian has also accused SIS investigators of committing numerous violations of the due process during their nearly yearlong criminal inquiry. At the opening session of his trial, the presiding judge did not allow to read out a statement detailing the alleged violations.
The judge went on to adjourn the hearing, citing the absence of the oppositionist’s lawyers. He said the trial will resume after they return from vacation.
Two other opposition activists arrested in connection with the Sari Tagh violence, Davit Sanasarian and Davit Hovannisian, also attended the first court hearing that lasted for only several minutes. Both men decried the criminal case against their comrade. Hovannisian, who was freed on bail in June, claimed that the Sari Tagh crowd could have easily broken through the police cordon had the protest organizers indeed planned to join the gunmen.
More than 60 protesters were injured and hospitalized in the Sari Tagh violence. The police say that 36 of their officers were injured by stones thrown from the crowd shortly before the violent breakup of the protest.
In a January report, Human Rights Watch said that the use of force against the protesters was “excessive and disproportionate.” The crackdown has also been criticized by Armenian human rights activists.
A former business executive, Ghukasian was a maverick candidate in Armenia’s last presidential election held in 2013. He garnered about 0.6 percent of the vote, according to the official election results.
Despite being held in pre-trial detention, Ghukasian ran in the April 2 parliamentary elections as a candidate of the opposition ORO alliance led by former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and former Foreign Ministers Raffi Hovannisian and Vartan Oskanian. ORO polled only 2 percent of the vote, falling well short of a 7 percent threshold for having seats in Armenia’s current parliament.