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Armenian Lawyer Turned Lawmaker Is Fearless In Face Of Authority

"If we want to move forward, we have to have a clean balance sheet," Tokaca says.
"If we want to move forward, we have to have a clean balance sheet," Tokaca says.
It was a sensational statement made amidst one of the most controversial court cases in Armenian history.

"If I fail to win the case, I swear I'll tear up my lawyer's license," Zaruhi Postanjian publicly vowed before taking up the appeals of Razmik Sargsian, Musa Serobian, and Arayik Zalian.

The three men, all soldiers in the Armenian Army, had been charged with murdering two of their fellow conscripts, Roman Yeghizarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian, whose beaten bodies were found in the Sarsang reservoir in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in January 2004. Sargsian says videotaped testimony in which he confessed to his and his fellow soldiers' role in the deaths was obtained under torture. Serobian and Zalian also say they were abused and mistreated while in detention.

They all pleaded not guilty, but were convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Their sentences were increased to life in prison by an appeals court in May 2006.

So, when in December 2006, Armenia's appeals court, the Court Of Cassation, overturned the murder convictions in a surprise move, the family and supporters of the three soldiers could not hold back their tears, including Postanjian.

The court said the case against the three men was flawed and lacking in evidence.

"It is not just a victory of lawyers, it is a victory of the whole society," Postanjian said after her clients were released, after having spent nearly three years behind bars. Though they are free, they have not been acquitted and still face an additional investigation into the killings.

Postanjian (lower right) got the convictions of Musa Serobian (left), Arayik Zalian, and Razmik Sargsian overturned.
Nevertheless, the 35-year-old Postanjian had achieved the impossible -- winning a case in the highest court of criminal justice in Armenia, a country where, according to rights watchdog Freedom House, the judicial branch is subject to political pressure from the executive branch and "suffers from considerable corruption."

Such a U-turn in a high-profile judicial proceeding had never been achieved by a defense counsel in Armenia, nor has it since.

In February 2007, Postanjian was awarded a medal of courage for her efforts by the Zoravar Andranik All-National Armenian Union, named after the freedom fighter and national hero.

Following the verdict, Postanjian suddenly found herself thrust into the media spotlight in Armenia. Since then, she has become well-known in the country for her tireless activism in the cause of human rights, for her fearlessness in the face of authority, and for her flamboyant personal style, both in the courtroom -- where she's been known to cry, scream, and jump up and down -- and in parliament, the latest arena in which she is continuing her crusade.

Dramatic Career Change

Postanjian moved from applying Armenia's laws to writing them in May 2007 when she was elected to the country's 131-seat National Assembly on the list of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, along with six other political newcomers. The move meant she had to quit her legal practice, and give up a handsome income far exceeding her deputy's salary of about $600 a month.

She says she's not sure why she made the dramatic career change. "I ask myself this question every day," she says, "and cannot find an answer to it."

The first major test for the opposition in the new Armenian parliament was consideration of a government-sponsored package of draft legislation that included amendments to the country's media-regulation bill that would have banned, or severely restricted, the retransmission of foreign broadcasts, including those of RFE/RL.

Postanjian poses in the home of her father, which served as campaign headquarters of the Heritage Party in 2007.
Opposition deputies called the proposed amendments an infringement on free speech and said that, if adopted, the legislation would further cement the government's already pervasive control over electronic media in the country.

In the end, the package was rejected by just one vote.

"What we've got in the end shows that everything is in our own hands," Postanjian said after several days of heated debate. "When I say 'we,' I mean those who have a wish to achieve a change of quality in our life, those who have a desire to put up a struggle."

Since her election, Postanjian has authored a number of draft laws aimed at improving the human rights situation in the country.

For example, she presented a draft law in autumn 2007 proposing that controversial Article 301 in Armenia's Criminal Code be abolished. The article calls for the leveling of a heavy fine and up to three years in prison for anyone publicly calling for the violent seizure of power or the overthrow of the constitutional system in Armenia. Human rights advocates say the article can be easily abused for the purposes of political persecution.

These draft laws have not yet come up for debate, however, and, in Armenia's current political climate, may never come up.

'Where Are You Taking This Child?'

As expected, Postanjian could be found in the thick of things earlier this year during Armenia's tumultuous presidential campaign and election.

For 11 days in February, tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Yerevan, in a mass challenge to the narrow first-round victory of former President Robert Kocharian's ally, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, in the presidential election on February 19. Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian -- Armenia's first post-Soviet president -- lost the vote to Sarkisian by more than 30 percentage points.

Clashes eventually erupted on March 1 that left nine people dead and hundreds injured. Kocharian then imposed a state of emergency, which ended the rallies.

A man injured in the postelection violence in Yerevan on March 1.
During the demonstrations, Postanjian appeared to be everywhere -- "policing the police," so to speak -- particularly on March 1 as she tried to protect demonstrators against police brutality and heavy-handed tactics, both in her capacity as a deputy and as a civil rights defender.

On one occasion, an RFE/RL reporter heard Postanjian verbally sparring with police in an effort to prevent them from imprisoning a child along with the child's father.

"Where are you taking this child?! What right do you have to take a child to a detention center?!" Postanjian screamed. "How will you look into your own children's eyes?”

Following the unrest, Postanjian, along with her fellow faction members, was a consistent critic of the restrictions on rights and freedoms during the state of emergency.

Where are you taking this child?! What right do you have to take a child to a detention center?!
She has also distinguished herself through her efforts to support three opposition deputies -- Hakob Hakobian, Sasun Mikayelian, and Miasnik Malkhassian -- arrested for their alleged roles in the March 1 violence and stripped of their parliamentary immunity. They remain in custody, charged under articles of the Criminal Code that deal with "usurpation of state power" and "incitement to mass disturbances."

She, like many opposition supporters, considers the three to be political prisoners.

According to the Prosecutor's Office, 40 opposition members and supporters remain in pretrial detention and 30 others have been sentenced to up to six years in prison on charges mainly stemming from the postelection opposition protests and the March 1 unrest. Another 32 opposition supporters have been given suspended prison sentences.

Postanjian and her faction have been putting pressure on the authorities to comply with the demands of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which has given Yerevan until the end of this year to lift restrictions on public rallies, launch an independent inquiry into the events of March 1, set up a dialogue with opposition parties, and release those individuals imprisoned "on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges."

'Credulous And Trusting'

Her new position as a lawmaker has done nothing to suppress Postanjian's flair for the dramatic gesture.

Last summer, Postanjian found herself at a Yerevan police station, lodging a complaint of police harassment against officers whom she accused of forcibly confiscating her handbag, as well as leaflets she had been distributing. Postanjian and one of her aides had been passing out flyers in defense of imprisoned military commander Zhirayr Sefilian as tens of thousands of Armenians -- including President Robert Kocharian -- had gathered in the capital's main stadium to watch the opening ceremonies of the Pan-Armenian Games.

Sefilian, a Lebanese-born Armenian, was a decorated commander during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. He and opposition activist Vartan Malkhasian were arrested in late 2006. Both were charged with publicly calling for the violent overthrow of the government. In 2007, the court found Sefilian guilty of illegal arms possession and sentenced him to 18 months in jail. Malkhasian was jailed for two years.

The predominantly ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan's borders. Karabakh seceded in 1988 with Yerevan's help. Armenian forces gradually took control of the mountainous region before seizing a number of adjacent Azerbaijani administrative districts, which they continue to occupy. The conflict claimed an estimated 35,000 lives and drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. A cease-fire was brokered in 1994. Negotiations continue on Karabakh's future status.

Sefilian has been a vocal critic of the Armenian government's negotiations with Baku. Many human rights activists in Armenia, including Postanjian, believe Sefilian and Malkhasian are, in fact, political prisoners, an assertion which the government denies.

Postanjian's support for Sefilian's case didn't stop there. On September 21, 2007, Postanjian was invited along with other parliamentary deputies to a reception held by Kocharian on Armenia's Independence Day. Postanjian used the occasion to wear a short-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the wartime commander that said: "Freedom to Zhirayr Sefilian."

Postanjian now and then.
Her daring outfit had the effect of repelling many of the celebrating guests, who all appeared to do their best to stay as far away as possible from Postanjian in the president's reception hall.

Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian of Armenia's ruling Republican Party says he considers Postanjian to be an energetic, yet overly emotional, lawmaker. He thinks she goes too far with her human rights efforts, however.

"Parliament is not a human-rights protection body," he says. "A lawmaker's work does not directly relate to human-rights protection.”

But Zharangutyun faction leader Raffi Hovannisian sees Postanjian as the embodiment of a modern-day human-rights champion.

"She lives in order to defend the rights of her fellow citizens and the interests of her nation," says Hovannisian, who also served as the country's foreign minister. "She is a citizen of law and will never become a deserter. And her shortcoming is the same as the shortcoming of the whole faction -- we are credulous and trusting. The vision of Armenia that we have is, indeed, different from the reality in which we live."

Passion For Environment

Postanjian's work in parliament hasn't deterred her from more grass-roots activism, especially when it comes to environmental issues. In the mid-1990s, she worked as a senior inspector in the Environmental Prosecutor-General's Office, and the environment remains one of her passions.

Last summer, construction was set to begin on a high-rise building in downtown Yerevan. The only problem was that residents of a nearby apartment block had long been using the land for a well-tended garden. Bulldozers, escorted by police, began to clear the site. The residents, desperate for help, sounded the alarm and called in whomever they could, including the press. And, of course, Postanjian, who once again found herself on the forefront of protest.

She lives in order to defend the rights of her fellow citizens and the interests of her nation.
With wet hair, holding her 5-year-old daughter, Greta, by the hand, Postanjian arrived and stood between an imperiled apricot tree and a bulldozer, shouting, "I won't let you do that!" Postanjian had jumped out of the bath and hadn't even had time to take Greta to her grandmother's. As others, emboldened by Postanjian's courage, joined in the defense, Greta stood by, calmly watching.

"I wasn’t afraid," she remembers. "My mom was working."

The garden on Pushkin Street was eventually saved, and Postanjian and her daughter planted an apricot tree there. To their surprise, the local authorities, including the prefecture of Yerevan's central district, also joined hands with the building's residents to plant new trees in the area.

Environmentalists have drawn attention to the lack of green zones in the capital and the deforestation taking place, exacerbated by an energy crisis in Armenia in the early 1990s, when many of Yerevan's trees were cut down. The crisis has been compounded by expanding construction projects and emissions from the ever-growing number of cars on the roads.

In November 2007, Postanjian also was instrumental in efforts to halt construction of a new building on another tree-studded site in the city. During a question-and-answer session with government members, Postanjian asked Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian about the matter. After that, the logging of trees and construction on the site were suspended.

Postanjian was among a group who visited the Teghut forest to study firsthand how many trees will be logged as a result of a mining plan put forward by the company ACP.
Zaruhi has also been behind protest actions against the company ACP (Armenia Copper Program), which wants to cut down 1,500 acres of virgin forest near the village of Teghut, in northern Armenia, to mine for copper and molybdenum ore. The forest is home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and plants, including many that are registered in the International Red Book of Endangered Species. On January 13, 2008, Postanjian led a few dozen activists on a bicycle ride through Yerevan's streets to express opposition to the clear-cutting.

Fitting In Her Family

As a deputy, Postanjian dresses casually, and without embarrassment. It's not unusual for her to turn up for a parliament session wearing jeans tucked into cowboy boots, dressed more for a night out than for a daytime debate. It's the same insouciance she displayed as a teenager when, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Postanjian renounced her membership in Komsomol, the communist youth organization, and began attending demonstrations and public rallies in the city.

Postanjian often dresses in jeans and cowboy boots while she's in the National Assembly in Yerevan.
Born in Yerevan, Postanjian attended Russian School No. 132 and graduated from Yerevan's MYUD Law Institute in 1994. She received her lawyer's license in 1999, and subsequently pursued advanced work in criminal law through the American Bar Association in Florida. Her personal passions sent her to Lund University in Sweden in 2003 to study human rights law, and to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw in 2004-05.

Today, Postanjian says, she's too busy for friends, and sometimes even for family.

"My parents have done and are doing everything for all my intentions to be realized, but I can spare very little time to spend with them. I don't see them often," she confesses. "When I myself became a mother, I was very young, only 20, and at that time it was purely an obligation for me. I didn't feel the pleasure. Now, with the 5-year-old daughter, I am starting to understand what motherhood is."

She married Suren Drampian, a dentist, in 1993. He says he understands his wife's passion in pursuit of human rights, but admits that sometimes he tells her: "You've had enough. Stay at home. You know what predators are out there. Who are you fighting against? We have children, don't we?"

Recently, Postanjian told faction head Raffi Hovannisian that she wants to have a fourth child.

"Only Zara can do both things at one time," Hovannisian said, "carrying out the highest and most sacred mission of giving birth to a child and providing mothering and being people’s elected representative and an active parliament deputy."

Says Postanjian: "I want every Armenian to be willing to live in Armenia, to have children here and to see their children's future only in Armenia."

Postanjian with her daughters Lusine, Lilit, and Greta. Her husband, Suren Drampian, watches over.

About "On The Front Lines"

About This Series
"On The Front Lines" features in-depth profiles of men and women in RFE/RL's broadcast area who have dedicated their lives to the causes of freedom, democratic values, and human rights. More

What Do I Believe? - Zaruhi Postanjian

What Do I Believe?

We asked Armenian lawmaker Zaruhi Postanjian to talk about the core beliefs that guide her in her life and work. Play

Side Lines -- Zaruhi Postanjian

Side Lines: Zaruhi Postanjian
Favorite books? Detective stories.

How do you relax?
I like having a rest at the lakeside. For example, at Lake Sevan. Or home, alone.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Where crucial decisions for Armenia are being made.

What is your greatest regret? That the "cream of society" has slowly left Armenia and gone abroad.

What is your worst vice or extravagance? My inability to forgive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To be always on the go, setting goals one after another, and achieving them, on and on.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Historian.

What was the best day or your life?
The day I met my future husband. I was 17.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I sometimes go around my house naked.

What is your greatest fear? Getting a shot at the doctor's.

What do you wish you were better at? Giving more time to my family. Everything I've achieved is at their expense, especially at the expense of my children.

Making Contact -- Zaruhi Postanjian

Making Contact
Want to get in touch with Zaruhi Postanjian? Here's how:

Address: 19 Marshal Baghramyan Ave., Yerevan 0095 Armenia