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Seven Prominent Armenian Oppositionists On Trial

Opposition supporters rally in Yerevan in April
Opposition supporters rally in Yerevan in April
Seven prominent opposition figures are set to go on trial in Yerevan on charges of seeking to overthrow the government.

The men were taken into custody in the wake of violent clashes between security forces and supporters of former President and opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Pertrossian in March.

For many in Armenia, the charges are regarded as unsubstantiated, even risible, while parallel investigations into the events that culminated in the violence continue.

Immediately after Armenia's Central Election Commission announced early on February 20 that Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian won the previous day's presidential ballot with over 52 percent of the vote, supporters of Ter-Petrossian, who according to official returns placed second with 21.5 percent, congregated in Yerevan's Freedom Square to protest the perceived rigging of the outcome. Ter-Petrossian himself claimed to have polled no less than 65 percent.

Violent Protests

The protests continued well into the early morning hours of March 1, when police moved in to disperse the participants by force. When they reassembled on the evening of the same day, the tensions escalated into open violence, with individual protesters attacking police and security forces, who in turn opened fire. Eight people were killed in the clashes, including two police officers; two more died later of their injuries.

Outgoing President Robert Kocharian imposed a 20-day state of emergency and laid the blame for the violence squarely on Ter-Petrossian, whom Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian subsequently accused of employing mass hypnosis on the demonstrators.

Even before the violence of March 1-2, police had set about rounding up prominent members of Ter-Petrossian's campaign staff. The detainees included opposition Hanrapetutiun party member Suren Sureniants, who was arrested on February 25 and spent two months in pretrial custody before a group of mostly pro-government legislators signed a petition calling for his release. The charges against him, which included inciting mass riots and attempting to seize power, were quietly dropped in June due to lack of evidence, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 13.

Less fortunate was Harutiun Urutian, who headed Ter-Petrossian's campaign in the northern Shirak region. He was sentenced in April to seven years in prison (later reduced on appeal to six years) on charges, which he claimed were politically motivated, of assaulting a member of Sarkisian's campaign staff on polling day.

Another Ter-Petrossian campaign official, Hovannes Harutiunian, was sentenced in April to 18 months' imprisonment for illegal possession of ammunition. Petros Makeyan, head of the small Democratic Fatherland Party, and Ashot Zakarian, head of the Giumri chapter of the Yerkrapah Union of Veterans of the Karabakh War, were jailed for three and 2 1/2 years, respectively, in June for obstructing the work of election precinct officials on February 19.

In all, more than 100 people were taken into custody either in the week leading up to March 1-2 or immediately after the violence. Ter-Petrossian's camp argues that at least 70 of them should be designated political prisoners. As of mid-October, 43 had been tried and sentenced to prison terms, 37 received suspended sentences, and five were acquitted, according to a Prosecutor-General's Office spokesperson quoted by Noyan Tapan.

Jail Terms

Since mid-October, two more prominent Ter-Petrossian loyalists have been sentenced to jail terms. Former senior Interior Ministry official Mushegh Saghatelian was jailed for five years on October 23, and former Minister of State Revenues and Hanrapetutiun party member Sambat Ayvazian for two years on November 19, both on charges of violently resisting police.

Ayvazian's conviction was based solely on police testimony, as was that of 19 of those sentenced earlier. In a statement dated October 2, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) condemned that practice as "unacceptable."

The trial opened on September 1 and is still ongoing of former Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Djahangirian, who publicly affirmed his support for Ter-Petrossian at a postelection rally on February 22.

Djahangirian suffered what was termed an "accidental" gunshot wound when police stopped his car on the outskirts of Yerevan the following evening and arrested him. He too is charged with seeking the violent overthrow of the incumbent regime.

The opposition newspaper "Chorrord ishkhanutiun" commented on December 12 that the authorities have taken a "differentiated" approach to those arrested in connection with the postelection protests and are acting more harshly against people who were not in opposition prior to the 2008 presidential election race.
Supporters of Ter-Petrossian claimed their candidate had won the election

The paper suggests Kocharian and Sarkisian cannot forgive the latter for aligning with Ter-Petrossian and thereby "dealing a serious blow to the ruling regime."

International Criticism

The Armenian government initially remained impervious to repeated criticism from international organizations, first of the conduct of the February 19 ballot, then of the March 1-2 violence, and finally of the court proceedings against Ter-Petrossian supporters.

But in mid-June, the Armenian parliament established an ad hoc commission tasked with investigating the March 1-2 violence. It was initially envisaged that the commission would present its findings by October 25.

On October 13, however, its members formally asked the parliament to extend that deadline for two months in order to enable them to incorporate the findings of a smaller, more independent fact-finding group established in July under pressure from the PACE.

Ter-Petrossian declined to nominate a representative to the parliamentary commission, but his Armenian National Congress is represented on the independent body.

In its October 2 statement, PACE registered alarm and concern at the situation of those people still held in pretrial detention and the "excessive length of the investigation," and urged that they be brought to trial promptly.

It also voiced doubts that some of those already sentenced had received a fair trial, suggesting that at least some were "convicted based on political beliefs and nonviolent activities," and expressed "regrets that the Armenian authorities did not consider the possibility of amnesty or pardons."

The seven men whose trial begins on December 19 are Aleksandr Arzumanian, who served under Ter-Petrossian as foreign minister and headed his campaign staff; former pro-government parliament members Miasnik Malkhasian and Hakob Hakobian; Sasun Mikayelian; Suren Sirunian; Shant Haroutiunian; and Grigor Voskerchian. All seven insist they are innocent of the charges against them, which they consider politically motivated.

PACE Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg observed on a visit to Yerevan last month that "I have not so far seen any strong evidence which would make it possible for an independent court to sentence these seven persons for attempting to change power in this country with violence."

The imminent trial of the seven was one of the topics that Sarkisian discussed on December 16 with visiting OSCE Secretary-General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut. Also on December 16, parliament member Artsvik Minasian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, which is part of the ruling four-party coalition, told journalists that Sarkisian may declare a general amnesty for all those sentenced to date, whether or not they pled guilty.

Such a gesture might defuse simmering tensions, and preclude the possibility of new violent protests if the seven receive draconian sentences.

On December 5, three men sentenced to jail terms ranging from three to 3 1/2 years for their participation in the March clashes were formally pardoned by Sarkisian after admitting their guilt, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 8.

And on December 17, it was announced that coup charges similar to those faced by the "seven" brought against four other prominent oppositionists -- former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh); Ararat Zurabian, and Karapet Rubinian, both prominent members of Ter-Petrossian's Armenian Pan-National Movement; and former deputy National Security Service head Gurgen Yeghiazarian -- have been dropped for lack of evidence. Aram Sarkisian was never taken into custody, and the other three were released from detention several months ago.