- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
July 9, 2004

Patterns of the Past?: Are there political prisoners in today’s Armenia?

Recent arrests of political oppositionists in Armenia have prompted activists and human rights advocates to draw parallels between the latest government crackdown and communist-era oppression.

Beginning in February, and officially ending two weeks ago, oppositional parties held rallies in Yerevan, calling for the resignation of President Robert Kocharyan, on grounds that he had “stolen” last year’s election and that his presidency is “illegitimate”.

Suren Surenyants

During the period, some 240 oppositional sympathizers were arrested on various charges and placed under "administrative arrests". But 14 party members, including leaders, were charged with more serious crimes, including advocating overthrowing the government. Though most have since been released (often after signing statements of remorse), one regional party head, Lavrenti Kirakosyan, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for drug possession, under what appears to be trumped-up charges based on planted evidence.

While law enforcement authorities call the bulk of charges civil disobedience, veteran civil rights advocates say the arrests are a throwback to days when anti-Sovietism could land a person in prison for up to 10 years.

“No countries, neither Northern Korea nor China admit the fact that they have political prisoners,” says human right activist Vardan Harutyunyan, who was a political prisoner during Soviet times. “In all those countries political prisoners are tried in accordance with the criminal code. The democratic world and non-governmental organizations judge whether a convict is political or not.”

The Soviet Criminal Code contained legislation with political subtexts that made it convenient for charging dissidents as criminals. The notorious Paragraph 65 on anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation was used to imprison 95 Armenians between the 1960s and independence, in 1991.

When Armenia became independent, Paragraph 65 was changed and instead of accusations of anti-Soviet activities the law enforced against "calls for forced overturn or change of state and public order of Armenia". In 1995 today's deputies of the National Assembly and members of Dashnak party Vahan Hovhannisyan and Armen Rustamyan were sentenced under the revised paragraph and served three years of longer sentences before being released when Levon Ter Petrossyan resigned in 1998.

In the Civil Code adopted last year, Paragraph 65 turned into Paragraph 301 and the punishment provided for by the paragraph was mitigated. Now, conviction on charges of anti-government activity range from fines, to three-year sentences.

In April, three oppositional representatives were arrested for making calls to change and overturn state order. They were kept in prison for two months and then set free.

Vardan Harutyunyan

Head of the Informational Department of the Republic party, political secretary Suren Surenyants was the first arrested. He was accused of inflammatory speech during a February 28 rally in the Shengavit Community of Yerevan on the day commemorating the pogroms of Sumgait, Azerbaijan.

For saying “We must do everything so that the earth would burn under this regime's feet”, he was convicted of instigating an overthrow of power. And for saying “With their acts of violence Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan don’t differ from Azeri hooligans” he was found guilty of insulting state authorities.

One of the party leaders, Vagharshak Harutyunyan held no speeches, however, he was also accused of making calls to seize state power by force.

A member of the President's Administration for Protection of Human Rights, Zhora Khachatryan, says the charges against Surenyants were subjective, while he found no basis at all for Harutyunyan's arrest.

“It is a question of judging Suren’s speech. Was it an insult or not?” says jurist Zhora Khachatryan. “He made such expressions, which can be interpreted in every way. My opinion is that his speech contains insults and calls for overturning the power. People must be decent in conversation.”

Khachatryan believes it is necessary to preserve Paragraph 301, however, he believes that speculations and the fact that all speeches are regarded as calls for overturn of power should be condemned.

Vardan Harutyunyan also believes that calls for a change of power by force should be condemned, however, he says none of the arrested made such calls, including Surenyants.

“During oppositional rallies nobody said that power must be overturned by force. There is nothing like that in Surenyants' speech as well,” Harutyunyan says. “There were only calls to change the power but it is a constitutional right and it is not a crime.”

Surenyants says he would never have been released, had he not signed a document of repentance.

“My health was bad. I had heart seizures and my eye pressure was increasing,” he says. “(Presidential Ombudsman) Larisa Alaverdyan's action also played an important role. However, those two factor would mean nothing if the repentance clause (of the Paragraph) was not applied to me.”

He says he signed document of repentance only for getting out of prison and in reality he doesn't repent of what he had done and he will continue the political struggle.

“When a country is independent, then one should not be in prison under the rule of the bad regime but one should change that bad regime,” he explained in his statement.

In the case of Kirakosyan (a leader of the National Democratic Union), human rights activists are saying that he is in fact a political prisoner, because his arrest was politically motivated.

Jurist Khachatryan, who was present at Kirakosyan’s trial, says there are numerous illegalities in the case, including a lack of cause for the search that turned up 59 grams of marijuana in Kirakosyan’s home.

He doesn't think, however, that Kirakosyan is a political prisoner.

According to Khachatryan, Kirakosyan became a victim of defects in the judicial system.

“If a criminal case enters the court, then verdict of ‘guilty’ should necessarily be rendered,” Kirakosyan says. “The court avoids rendering verdicts of ‘not guilty’ as in that case defects of the work conducted by (state) bodies in charge of preliminary investigations will become apparent.

Zhora Khachatryan

“Even in this case the court doesn't carry out the order of authorities, rather, it functions in accordance with the established order. If the Prosecutor's Office presented a case then a verdict of 'guilty' must be necessarily rendered. For now we still have no just courts.”

Vardan Harutyunyan sees reflections of past regimes in cases such as Kirakosyan’s.

“I can bring numerous examples from the Soviet Union times when dissidents were accused of rape, hooliganism and drug use. The paragraph means nothing,” he says. “The real reasons must be detected. And the real reason of trying Lavrenty is political.”

In 1980, together with his four associates Vardan Harutyunyan created Union of Armenian Youth, whose goal was the independence of Armenia. Members of that organization were spreading prohibited literature. One year later they were arrested and convicted. Only Harutyunyan was accused and sentenced under Paragraph 65 – anti-Soviet agitation. The other three were sentenced not only under Paragraph 65, but also under other paragraphs of the criminal code.

“I was in the army when they detained me. If I were in Yerevan they would fabricate additional cases for me,” he says.

The head of the organization, the late Marzpet Harutyunyan, was, like Kirakosyan, accused of dealing drugs.

Vardan Harutyunyan, now 43, recalls the sentencing:

“It was determined that Marzpet doesn't use drugs, but deals them,” Harutyunuan remembers the judge saying. “You think about your health but for poisoning young men you spread drugs.”

To which, according to Harutyunyan, Marzpet answered: “Judge, if I had wished to poison young men then I would have spread Marxism.”

Another member of the group Samvel Yeghiazaryan was accused of acts of hooliganism, which he says he never committed.

“One day the head of the district came and said ‘come with me we have things to do’,” recalls 46-year-old Yeghiazaryan. “Together with him we went to the police station. A policeman told me that I had committed acts of hooliganism, that I had been cursing women passing by in the street next to 'Aquarium' restaurant. I thought it was a mistake, misunderstanding. I swore I had never done something like that. I said can you bring witnesses and they said it is not accepted that women give testimonies.”

One of the groups' members, Ishkhan Mkrtchyan was killed in prison in 1985 while serving his sentence for resisting arrest and for violations of Paragraph 65. A fifth member was set free after signing a document of remorse during the trial.

Vardan Harutyunyan, who spent eight years in prison, says spending time in prison was a part of their struggle.

“Of course, there is a great difference between today’s Armenia and Soviet Armenia. Those days any kind of public or political activities was prohibited,” says Vardan Harutyunyan. “Simply today people with Soviet mentality came to power. Their methods are the same but their possibilities are limited as the world has changed. They cannot fully bring to life their ideas, however, in some measure they do that – they forbid mass meetings and execute arrests. ”

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