Sunday, March 29, 2009

PACE Monitoring Committee to meet tomorrow...

Thomas Hammarberg
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

March 26, 2009

Dear Mr. Hammarberg,

We are writing to you on behalf of the families of the seven opposition leaders currently standing trial in Armenia’s “Case of Seven” Although we are confident that as always, your office is following the trial and other human rights matters in Armenia, we have several concerns regarding recent developments that we would like to share with you.

On March 18, 2009, the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia adopted amendments to Articles 225 and 300 of the Armenian Criminal Code that had been proposed in order to address the legal shortcomings in these articles that you, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and others had pointed out. This initiative, along with the written assurances given by Speaker of the National Assembly Hovik Abrahamyan, has been regarded by the PACE as a signal of the willingness of the Armenian authorities to address the matter of the seven opposition leaders charged with violating Articles 300 and 225.3 and to pave the way for their release, in line with the requirements of PACE Resolution 1643.

We are concerned, however, by recent comments by David Harutyunyan, the chairman of the working group established within the National Assembly to amend the articles in question, which cast doubt upon whether the recent changes will actually lead to the release of the political prisoners. According to Mr. Harutyunyan, the National Assembly has done its part, and now it is up to the Prosecutor General and the judge presiding over the trial to take action as they see fit. This action, in his assessment, might vary and could be manifested in acquittal, dropping the charges, requalifying the charges to bring them in line with the new contents of the amended articles, or even bringing lesser charges. Mr. Harutyunyan added that “the law is a very subjective matter,” and the prosecutor’s or judge’s decisions might also be subjective in nature, whether we like it or not. This equivocal interpretation of the meaning and significance of the changes in the law causes us to worry that rather than dropping the charges against our husbands, the authorities may be planning to bring lesser charges against them, carrying sentences, say, of three years, rather than fifteen, and then attempt to portray this to the international community as a manifestation of good will toward the defendants.

Whether or not the authorities will succeed in implementing this deceitful and unjust course of action depends upon the degree to which it is tolerated by the international community, and the PACE Monitoring Committee in particular. It was with this in mind, perhaps, that in court on March 23, 2009, Judge Mnatsakan Martirosyan adjourned the trial for nine days at the prosecutors’ request, accepting their explanation that the amendments had not entered into force (although they had been signed by the president on March 21, they were not officially promulgated until March 24) and that they, the prosecutors, needed this time to make up their minds as to how to proceed with the case. It may have been that the specific date of the next court session—April 1, 2009—was chosen purposely, in order to wait and see what the reaction by the Monitoring Committee (which is due to meet March 30-31) would be in relation to the various courses of action being considered by the Armenian authorities at the moment.

Mr. Hammarberg,

It is because the upcoming meeting of the Monitoring Committee may well decide the fate of our husbands that we ask you personally to intercede on their behalf. Our husbands and their lawyers have presented the judge with motions substantiating in great detail the unequivocal necessity of dropping the charges against them in accordance with national law as well as the European Convention of Human Rights and other legal acts ratified by the Republic of Armenia (we have asked our lawyers to send copies of the motions to your office), but we have little hope that any judge in Armenia today is willing or able to be guided in his decisions by the letter of the law or the principle of justice. What matters is the political will of the government to resolve the situation, and this will depend in its turn upon the Monitoring Committee’s insistence that the Armenian Government abide by its international commitments and meet the demands set forth in PACE Resolutions 1643, 1620, and 1609, and its refusal to tolerate obfuscation or half-measures.

The only acceptable outcome is the dropping of all charges against our husbands; the option of lesser sentences, even with vague promises of eventual amnesty, is neither just nor humane. Every day these men spend in jail brings with it additional risks to their health and additional hardship for their families. Recently, one of the defendants, Shant Harutyunyan, suffered a nervous breakdown—he is currently being held in a psychiatric ward, denied all contact with his family. We can only wonder who will be the next to fall ill.

Although it pains us to have to write to you once again of such troubles, we cannot over-emphasize how important your intercession is. Please do what you can to make sure that the Monitoring Committee does not allow itself to be deceived, and that our husbands and the other political prisoners are freed at last.

Sincerely yours,

Melissa Brown
Wife of Alexander Arzoumanian

Marine Harutyunyan
Wife of Grigor Voskerchyan

cc: John Prescott
Georges Colombier

Monday, March 16, 2009

No defendents, no lawyers?

This trial gets crazier and crazier. The phrase going around now is theatre of the absurd. I'd say theatre of cruelty. For some days, we've had no defendents in the courtroom, and yesterday the lawyers walked out in protest. So today, the judge and the prosecutors will be on their own. Since they seem hell-bent on keep the trial going at all costs, anything is possible today...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Human Rights Watch Report--powerful reading...

Armenia’s Disputed 2008 Presidential Election, Post-Election Violence, and the One-Sided Pursuit of Accountability
February 25, 2009
This 64-page report details the clashes between police and protesters in Armenia's capital, Yerevan, on March 1, 2008, in the wake of the disputed February 2008 presidential polls. It also documents the ill-treatment of individuals detained in connection with the violence, and lack of comprehensive investigation and accountability for excessive use of force on March 1 and in its aftermath. The report is based on more than 80 interviews carried out over three research missions in Armenia in 2008 and 2009.
Read the Report

From Al Jazeera

Remembering Armenia's victims
By Matthew Collin in Yerevan
Police fought with protesters who had set up barricades during last year's riots [EPA]
In a corner of Alla Hovannisian's living room in Yerevan is a small memorial to her son, with religious icons, fresh flowers, and an old school photograph.
Tigran died when he was 23, during civil unrest in the Armenian capital on March 1 last year, violence which shocked and divided this small country.
His mother says that when she first heard that he had been killed, she refused to believe it.
"I said it must be a mistake, it must be someone else's body in the morgue, and my husband went a second time to check," she recalls.
Pitched battles raged into the early hours of the morning after riot police moved in to end more than a week of demonstrations against the results of presidential elections which the opposition claimed were falsified.
The night sky was lit up with tracer bullet fire and flames rose from burning cars as police fired tear gas and fought with protesters who had set up barricades and armed themselves with petrol bombs and metal staves.
Alla's son was one of several people who were shot during the clashes which left eight civilians and two policemen dead, causing the Armenian authorities to impose a state of emergency and send the army onto the streets.
"Tigran was killed with a special weapon, a tear gas gun which only the police have," claims his mother.
"I blame the people who killed him, but most of all I blame the ones who gave the orders to shoot."
As she spoke, her husband sat nearby, quietly crying.
'Excessive force'
A new report from Human Rights Watch says that the Armenian authorities have prosecuted dozens of opposition members for their alleged involvement in last year's violence, but haven't held the police to account for what the campaign group claims was the "excessive use of force".
The government deployed tanks and soldiers on the streets of Yerevan, the capital [EPA]More than 50 opposition supporters have already been jailed after what Human Rights Watch alleges have sometimes been "flawed and politically motivated" trials, but no policeman has yet been prosecuted.
"The authorities' response to the March 1 events has been one-sided," said Giorgi Gogia, the author of the Human Rights Watch report.
"The fact that police were themselves under attack at times by no means excuses them for incidents when they used excessive force."
The most high-profile and controversial trial is still under way.
Seven men, including Alexander Arzumanian, the former Armenian foreign minister, and three members of parliament, are being prosecuted for allegedly trying to overthrow the government by force.
Melissa Brown, the former foreign minister's wife, says that it's a "show trial" intended to silence dissent.
"My husband worked at the UN, he worked as foreign minister, he worked in the opposition; now his work is to serve time as a political prisoner and to stand up and show people that the things they’re fighting for are worth fighting for," she says.
Disputed election
Alexander Arzumanian was the campaign manager for the outspoken opposition leader, Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was defeated in last year's disputed presidential elections by the establishment candidate, Serzh Sarkisian.
Ter-Petrossian and his allies deny trying to overthrow the government [AFP]Ter-Petrossian had been Armenia's president before, in the 1990s, when he also sent troops onto the streets to quell protests after being accused of rigging an election.
But Melissa Brown insists that her husband and his allies were struggling for freedom and democracy, and will continue to do so even if they're convicted.
"Personally, I think they're heroes, because they're willing to go to jail for their beliefs and to stay in jail for as long as it takes," she says.
The Armenian authorities reject allegations that the trials have been politically motivated and insist that there are no political prisoners in the country.
"A certain group tried to seize power by force, which is a crime," says Sona Truzian, the spokeswoman for the Armenian state prosecutor.
"In any country in the world, political activities have to be carried out within the law.
"It doesn't matter if someone is a politician or an ordinary citizen - if they have broken the law, they have to be brought to justice."
Surveillance transcripts
To support its claim that the opposition leaders organised the violence as part of an attempted coup, the prosecution service has released details of witness statements and transcripts of telephone conversations which were intercepted by the security services.
The surveillance transcripts seen by Al Jazeera appear to show some opposition leaders discussing how to bring more of their supporters to the demonstration just before the deadly clashes, and showing approval of the burning of a police car, but they do not mention any plan to overthrow the government.
The prosecution service, however, insists that the violence was well organised and that opposition activists distributed weapons to use against the police. Human Rights Watch says that the full picture of what happened a year ago in Yerevan has yet to emerge.
An Armenian parliamentary commission set up to examine the violence hasn't yet published its findings.
Official investigators have admitted that three of the civilian victims were killed by tear gas grenades fired from close range by riot police, but they say they cannot identify which officers were responsible.
Alla, whose son died that night, hopes that the guilty will be punished, but doubts whether the whole truth will ever come out.
"I can imagine what happened, but will it ever be revealed?" she asks. "I don't think so."
Al Jazeera

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stand up, sit down: Armenialiberty reports...

Thursday 12, February 2009
Opposition Trial Again Adjourned
By Karine KalantarianThe most high-profile of trials of Armenian opposition members arrested following the February 2008 presidential election remained in deadlock on Thursday even though all seven defendants agreed to stand up and show respect for the presiding judge. The defendants stayed demonstratively seated when the judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, entered the courtroom during the previous hearings, in protest against what they see as politically motivated charges leveled against them. Martirosian halted and adjourned proceedings as a result. The seven oppositionists, among them former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian and three members of parliament, switched to a new form of defiance on Thursday, standing up and then refusing to sit down. Martirosian found this behavior equally unacceptable, telling them to take their seats in the dock and “show a respectful attitude so we can continue the court session.” “It’s more convenient for us to keep standing,” replied Arzumanian. “There are [legal] norms requiring trial participants to sit down. There is only a requirement to stand up, which is what we did.” “We’re not insulting you, we’re not telling you anything. We’re just standing,” he said. Arzumanian, who managed opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian’s 2008 election campaign, challenged Martirosian to cite a legal provision that obligates defendants to stay seated during trials. The judge ignored the demand, insisting that the oppositionists respect the court. He stopped the hearing and delayed the trial by two weeks after one of the defendants, Shant Harutiunian, shouted abuse at him. The oppositionists are among about 60 Ter-Petrosian supporters who remain imprisoned on charges mostly stemming from the post-election deadly clashes in Yerevan. They stand accused under two articles of the Armenian Criminal Code that deal with provocation of “mass riots accompanied by murders” and “usurpation of state authority by force.” The Armenian authorities have pledged to amend those articles by next April as part of their stated efforts to comply with resolutions on Armenia adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). PACE officials say the authorities have assured them that the amendments will be retroactively applied to jailed Ter-Petrosian loyalists in a way that should result in their release from prison. Ter-Petrosian and his aides are highly skeptical about these assurances, however. (Photolur photo)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Letter to the PACE from the wives of Armenia's political prisoners

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

January 25, 2009

Dear Delegates,

We are writing to you on behalf of the wives, mothers, and sisters of Armenia’s political prisoners and detainees in connection with the February 19, 2008 presidential election and its aftermath. On Tuesday, January 27, 2009 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is to consider the implementation by Armenia of Assembly Resolutions 1609 and 1620. We ask that you remember the victims of the continuing political repression in Armenia as you decide what course to take.

We commend the Monitoring Committee for its December 22, 2008 Draft Resolution, which recognizes that our loved ones are indeed political prisoners and that strong actions are necessary to bring the Armenian government into compliance with the requirements of the Council of Europe and its obligations to its own people.

Since the passage of Resolutions 1609 and 1620 and the December Draft Resolution, the authorities have failed to take meaningful steps that correspond to the promises they have made to you and to us. We know that you are well informed by the Armenian National Congress and others of recent developments in Armenia. Without repeating all that you have learned from them, we wish to confirm, from our personal experience, that political repression has only worsened recently. A number of political prisoners have been beaten and moved to more dangerous prison cells, in attempts to intimidate them and break their will. The trail of seven has been repeatedly postponed by the judge, denying detainees the right swift justice. Their relatives have been threatened and intimidated by scores of plainclothes policemen inside the courtroom. Outside the courtroom, peaceful supporters have been repeatedly been harassed and abused by an army of police and red berets. This is what we live through every day.

There have been many calls both here and abroad for a general amnesty for the political prisoners. The government response has been cynical and cruel. The authorities have launched a campaign of intimidation to persuade prisoners and those who have received suspended sentences to formally request pardon from Serzh Sargsyan; in exchange they must confess to crimes they did not commit and renounce further political activity. Several, under extreme duress, have succumbed. The vast majority have resisted and will continue to resist. On the evening of Saturday, January 24, well aware that Armenian newspapers do not publish on Sunday and Monday and so no public response would be possible before Tuesday, Serzh Sargsyan’s office announced the pardon of sixteen men convicted in connection with the March 1 events. None of these men, however, is on our list of political prisoners. They are not oppositionists, but rather hoodlums and petty criminals planted by the authorities among the crowd of peaceful protestors.

While granting these questionable pardons, government representatives have repeatedly suggested that no general amnesty is possible until the trial of seven has run its course. This argument is flawed legally, logically, and morally. There is no law that would prevent the immediate release of all political prisoners and detainees. In terms of logic, there are dozens of prisoners who have already been convicted on various charges solely on police testimony; their release should not be connected in any way to the trials that are ongoing. Morally, it is well known that the trial of seven could go on for years and years. These men have already spent nearly 11 months in jail, completely unjustly. To even suggest that they should remain in captivity at the mercy of the Armenian justice system for who knows how much longer is deeply wrong.

It is well known among the citizens of Armenia, and should be recognized by the PACE as well, that all government actions taken to deal with the situation thus far have been last-minute attempts to deceive, to save face, and to avoid for as long as possible the inevitable consequences of the campaign of political repression that began well before the election of February 2008. Similarly, the promised revision of Articles 225 and 300 of the Criminal Code, while welcome, is an act of desperation and deceit, rather than good will, and offers no real guarantee that justice will be done.

We don’t wish to see our country further estranged from European structures and values, but it is these very values of democracy, freedom, and human rights that our loved ones have been persecuted for espousing. Each additional day that the authorities are given to fulfill their obligations to the Council of Europe and to their own people is an additional day in Soviet-era prison cells for these men, bringing with it risks to their health and well-being, and physical, financial, and psychological hardship for their families.

We remind you that the members of the Armenian delegation to the PACE are part of the system that has allowed and encouraged the unraveling of democracy to take place. While they may be men of good will individually, they are under tremendous pressure to serve the interests of an unjust and illegitimate regime. We ask you to remember our families, and our children in particular, as you make your decision on Tuesday.
Respectfully yours,
The Wives of Armenia’s Political Prisoners Coordinating Group

Monday, December 29, 2008

Armenialiberty reports on third day of trial

Armenian ‘Coup’ Trial Again Adjourned
By Astghik Bedevian and Ruben MeloyanUnder Armenia’s laws regulating court hearings, trial participants must stand up when judges make their way into the courtroom. The seven oppositionists tried for attempting to “usurp state authority” and organizing mass riots after last February’s presidential election refuse to comply with this requirement in protest against what they see as a politically motivated case. The defendants, among them former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian and three parliament deputies, remained demonstratively seated at the start of the third court hearing on the high-profile case on Saturday. The judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, again construed this as a contempt of court and adjourned proceedings until January 9 moments later. “We won’t stand up no matter how many times you have us taken away,” Arzumanian told the judge. He also demanded that Martirosian address him as “Mr. Arzumanian,” rather than “defendant Arzumanian.” “We consider this trial illegal and won’t stand up because right from the beginning the judge has neglected our rights,” said another defendant, parliament deputy Miasnik Malkhasian. He suggested sarcastically that President Serzh Sarkisian cut short the trial with a decree setting punishment for each of the defendants. Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights defender personally monitoring the trial, discussed the situation with Martirosian afterwards. He said he will meet other judicial experts to discuss possible ways of resuming the trial that would satisfy both sides. “Because the Judicial Code requires [defendants] to stand up he can not start hearings after being treated disrespectfully,” Harutiunian told reporters. “We are in a kind of deadlock. To me the positions of both the judge and the defendants are acceptable.” Although the courtroom was mostly empty on Saturday, journalists and photographers were again barred from entering it and had to follow proceedings from monitors placed in an adjacent room. Court officials refused to explain the ban which Harutiunian condemned as “unacceptable.” Journalists were similarly barred from the courtroom during the previous court hearing held on December 23. It was marred by bitter verbal exchanges between defendants’ relatives and plainclothes police officers brought into the courtroom. Most of those relatives boycotted Saturday’s hearing at the urging of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). The opposition alliance claimed last week that the Armenian authorities need an excuse to hold the trial behind the closed door and are planning to provoke more ugly scenes in the court for that purpose. In a related development, a group of civil rights activists monitoring conditions in Armenia’s prisons has backed opposition claims that another defendant, Grigor Voskerchian, and at least two other oppositionists kept in Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison were beaten up on December 23. A member of the group, Artur Sakunts, told RFE/RL that it submitted a corresponding report to Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian on December 25. He said Danielian forwarded the report to the Office of the Prosecutor-General. Also last week, President Serzh Sarkisian ordered Danielian to investigate the torture allegations. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry department managing the Armenian prisons said on Monday that the inquiry is still in progress. The department strongly denies the allegations. According to its version of events, the department’s “rapid reaction” unit met with fierce resistance from some Nubarashen inmates as it conducted regular searches in the prison on December 23. It says the unit had to use force against those prisoners that seriously injured its commander. (Photolur photo)