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Prominent Armenian Opposition Figures Are Released Under Amnesty

Opposition leader Sasun Mikaelian received a hero's welcome from supporters after being released from prison on May 27.
YEREVAN -- The two most prominent members of the Armenian opposition remaining in prison have been set free in accordance with a general amnesty declared by authorities.

Sasun Mikaelian, a former parliament deputy, and Nikol Pashinian, editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, received a hero’s welcome from family members, friends, and supporters as they walked out of their respective prison facilities.

The two men played a major role in the March 1, 2008, postelection demonstrations in Yerevan that were forcibly broken up by security forces and left 10 people dead.

Like many other associates of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, both men went into hiding following the crackdown. Mikaelian was caught and arrested several days later, while Pashinian remained on the run until surrendering to law-enforcement bodies in July 2009.

"I will keep fighting," Mikaelian told journalists outside a prison hospital in Yerevan where he has spent much of his time since March 2008. "Nothing has changed in my political views and attitudes."

Mikaelian, who is also a prominent veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, insisted that he was "unjustly" sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of organizing what the Armenian authorities call “mass disturbances” and illegal arms possession. He was stripped of his parliament mandate because of that conviction.

Mikaelian, who lives in the central Armenian town of Hrazdan, was also unrepentant about his decision to back Ter-Petrosian in the February 2008 presidential election despite being affiliated with current President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party. He said at the same time that Sarkisian remains his “comrade-in-arms,” alluding to the president’s prominent role in the war against Azerbaijan.

Mikaelian also weighed in on a dialogue between the Sarkisian administration and Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK), which has been made possible by the amnesty. “If it’s really an honest dialogue, then I accept it,” he said.

Asked whether he would now campaign for Sarkisian’s removal from power, Mikaelian said, “The Congress will decide.”

Pashinian Defiant

Pashinian struck a more defiant note as he emerged from a high-security prison near the northwestern Armenian town of Artik later, chanting “Struggle, struggle to the end,” Ter-Petrosian’s signature political slogan. “I can’t wait to take part in the [HAK’s] May 31 rally,” he told journalists.

Opposition figure and newspaper editor Nikol Pashinian talks to the media and supporters minutes after his release from jail in Artik on May 27.

Pashinian went on to call for Sarkisian’s resignation and said the HAK “will do everything” to achieve it. He dismissed speculation that the HAK leadership is now ready to cut a deal with the Armenian president that would enable the latter to hold on to power.

The outspoken oppositionist claimed he was repeatedly offered such deals by the authorities while in prison. “Let nobody doubt that we will free Armenia from this kleptocracy and establish democracy,” he declared.

Pashinian, 35, was one of the most influential speakers at massive antigovernment rallies organized by Ter-Petrosian before and after the 2008 presidential ballot. He was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for allegedly organizing the deadly unrest in the capital. He denied the accusations as politically motivated.

The release of Pashinian, Mikaelian and a handful of other individuals regarded by the HAK as political prisoners has one of the main opposition preconditions for starting a dialogue with Sarkisian. The authorities are thought to have accepted this demand through the amnesty.
U.S. President Barack Obama says recent trials of former presidential candidates in Belarus were "clearly politically motivated."
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama says Washington will pursue expanded sanctions against the hardline regime of Belarusian Alyaksandr Lukashenka in response to his crackdown on the country’s opposition.

The announcement comes amid renewed condemnation from Obama and European leaders of the recent sentencing of opposition presidential candidates in trials they say are politically motivated.

According to a statement issued by the White House as Obama was departing the G8 summit in France for Poland, the planned sanctions will target “select Belarusian state-owned enterprises.” They are meant to complement other sanctions on companies, as well as the travel restrictions and asset freezes for officials, that Washington announced on January 31.

“These measures are targeted against those responsible for the repression, particularly President Lukashenka, and are not directed against the people of Belarus,” the statement said.

An official from the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs told RFE/RL that the sanctions package would also impose restrictions on additional individuals and would be finalized and officially announced “within the month.”

The official would not provide details on which companies and officials would be targeted.

The measures approved in January expanded already existing U.S. sanctions on Belarus, and came in the wake of a brutal crackdown on demonstrators that followed the disputed December 19 reelection of Lukashenka.

More than 600 people, including seven of nine presidential candidates running against the man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” were arrested during a mass post-election rally in Minsk.

Washington’s sanctions were agreed in coordination with the European Union, which imposed visa bans and froze the assets of Lukashenka and other top-ranking officials.

In total, 158 people were prohibited from entering the EU. The list has since been expanded to include more than 20 additional people in response to the sentencing of a number of politicians who ran against Lukashenka to multi-year jail terms.

In today’s statement, Obama condemned the sentencing of Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, Andrey Sannikau, Vital Rymasheuski, Mikalay Statkevich, and Dzmitry Vus, and said the United States “considers these candidates and the other courageous activists and candidates arrested and charged in conjunction with the crackdown on December 19 as political prisoners.”

It also said the trials of the candidates were “clearly politically motivated and failed to meet even the most minimal standards required of a fair and independent judiciary.”

In the most recent of those trials on May 26, Statkevich and Vus were sentenced to six and 5 ½ years in prison, respectively, on charges of organizing the post-election mass protest.

Numerous opposition activists have also been jailed in recent weeks, while at least seven have been released.

Former presidential candidate Dzmitry Vus in a Minsk court room on May 12

Deepening Criticism

Obama was not the only world leader to condemn the continuing repression in Minsk.

In a statement released after the May 26 trial, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, "These politically motivated sentences are yet another step backwards as regards Belarus' respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles."

The French and Czech foreign ministries issued similar responses, and even Russia, traditionally an ally of Minsk, criticized the "harsh" prison sentences.

Polish foreign ministry said in a statement, “Sentencing election candidates to prison terms marks a strange precedent in contemporary Europe's development of democratic freedoms and human rights."

The Polish capital, Warsaw, is the site of summit that began today involving the heads of nearly 20 ex-communist states, as well as Obama and a number of other Western leaders.

Hosted by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, talks are expected to take up the Arab Spring, regional economics, missile defense, and how best to prod the Belarusian government to change its ways.

Meanwhile, Lukashenka, who has offered a defiant response to Western sanctions and criticism, today appeared to take another step that could further isolate Minsk.

In criticizing Belarusian journalists who work for foreign organizations, he ordered his government to "make sure those media organizations no longer work on our territory."

His order came in response to what he described as the foreign media’s alarmist coverage of the country’s deepening financial crisis.

While he directed his harshest criticism at Russia media, which is popular in Belarus, Lukashenka said he would not name the journalists or organizations because he did not want to increase their ratings.

written by Richard Solash with agency reports

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