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Armenian PM Rejects ‘Threats’ From Jailed Oppositionists


Armenia - Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and members of his government attend a parliament session in Yerevan, 23 May 2018.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian rejected on Wednesday what he called “threats of violence” made by the leaders of a fringe opposition group imprisoned by the former Armenian authorities.

He reiterated that he will not try to pressurize courts into releasing Zhirayr Sefilian, Varuzhan Avetisian and other jailed members of the Founding Parliament movement that seized a police station in Yerevan in 2016.

Sefilian and Avetisian, who lead Founding Parliament, criticized Pashinian’s reluctance to exert such pressure on Tuesday. In an open a letter to the recently elected premier, they said the continued imprisonment of these and other “political prisoners” could have “severe consequences” for Armenia.

“As you know the process of the release of political prisoners has begun and will continue,” Pashinian said, commenting on the letter. “But I want to make one thing clear: one must not speak to the people with threats of violence and hints at threats of violence.”

“I hope we all understand that if there has been a change of political situation that change of political situation must also occur in everybody’s behavior,” he told reporters.

Pashinian also dismissed Sefilian’s and Avetisian’s claims that he seems to have “washed his hands” of radical opposition activists and supporters jailed during former President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule.

“We have to verify what it means to wash one’s hands,” he said. “If it’s about my statements that I’m not going to issue instructions to judges, then I stand by that position because starting a process of instructing judges for any purpose means starting a process of ‘SerzhSarkisianization.’ I won’t put myself into such a process because even if we issue an order to a court just once that court will never operate without our orders.”

“We attach great importance to the establishment of an independent judicial system in the Republic of Armenia and see two practical tasks in that regard,” Pashinian went on. “First, to make sure that no illegal orders are issued to courts from government offices or anywhere else. And second, to make sure that no judge hands down a ruling in return for a bribe.”

Pashinian pledged to seek the release of all “political prisoners” immediately after he swept to power in a democratic revolution earlier this month. But he made clear that he will use solely legal mechanisms for that purpose.

Sefilian was arrested in June 2016 and subsequently sentenced to 10.5 years in prison for plotting an armed revolt against the government, a charge he strongly denies.

Sefilian’s arrest came less than a month before three dozen Founding Parliament members led by Avetisian seized a police base in Yerevan’s Erebuni district to demand his release and Sarkisian’s resignation. The armed group calling itself Sasna Tsrer laid down its weapons after a two-week standoff with security forces, which left three police officers dead.

Pashinian has publicly listed Sefilian, but not Avetisian and other jailed gunmen, among the individuals who he believes were jailed for political reasons. He said last week that the Sasna Tsrer case is “a bit different” because of the three casualties. He said it should be resolved as a result of public “discussions” that must involve relatives of the three slain policemen.

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