The conviction of a man charged with hitting police with a plastic bottle has sparked action from human rights agencies, has led to two activists’ arrests for putting up leaflets calling for his release, and has even led some individuals to write confessions that they are guilty of the same crime.
Protestors outside court brought symbolic Jermuk bottles...
Last week an Armenian court sentenced Edgar Arakelyan, 24, to 18 months in prison for striking police with a plastic Jermuk water bottle while police were breaking up a political demonstration in the early hours of April 13.
Arakelyan pled guilty to charges (which originally called for a two and a half year sentence), but argued that he used the bottle for defense only after police had sprayed the crowd with tear gas and had hit him with a baton, breaking out his front teeth.
In protest of Arakelyan’s arrest and conviction, about 2 a.m. Sunday, 25-year old Harut Alaverdyan and 24-year old Hakob Hakobyan went along Mashtots Avenue pasting posters saying “Freedom for Edgar” onto utility poles.
The young men were arrested, held in jail overnight, and on Tuesday charged in court with malicious disobedience of a legal order or demand made by police, and with “blasphemy”.
The men, one a university student and the other a post-graduate, say they became nervous when police approached them, and offered to remove the posters they’d pasted. Instead, they were taken into custody.
“We were attaching the last leaflet when two policemen approached us and asked why we were attaching them,” Alaverdyan said. “I said, 'If it goes against the law then I can tear them off'. Then a third policeman came up to us. He had already torn a leaflet off. They demanded us to follow them to a police station. I asked, 'What we are accused of?' But they said, ‘Follow us, you will find out there.’”
According to the men, they were told not to hire a lawyer as police would appoint one anyway and hiring a lawyer would cost too much. They signed a document saying they refused hiring an attorney.
The following day a lawyer and the chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia visited the men and arranged for their release, after Alaverdyan and Hakobyan signed a statement saying they would return for a hearing.
The defendants, Alaverdyan and Hakobyan, say they offered to take the posters down...
In a courtroom that, three hours before trial, was already filled to standing, attorney Argshti Kiviryan (who took the case for free) argued that the men were exercising their rights to freedom of speech. Kiviryan asked policeman Karapet Barseghyan why the men were charged.
The lawyer reminded that, according to constitution, a person has a right to freely spread his or her points of view and then asked why the policeman’s demand to tear off the leaflets was legal. Policeman Barseghyan kept silent for a long time and never answered the question. Judge Saribek Aramyan helped him. The judge withdrew the question and said attaching leaflets was not an illegal act and therefore it was not an offense. The lawyer made a motion to close the case based on the conclusion that the police had acted without cause.
The judge agreed, but did, however, impose a 1500 dram (about $2.70) fine on Alaverdyan (he printed the leaflets) and a 1000 dram fine (about $1.80) on Hakobyan, saying that the defendants “demonstrated disobedience of the legal demand made by policemen”.
The court hearing was attended by several protestors who held signs saying “No to police-ridden state”, “Don’t be afraid”, “No to state terrorism”. Some held Jermuk bottles.
Human rights’ activists say the young men’s arrests is an example of police abuse of power and an overall effort by authorities to silence criticism of the Government by the political opposition.
“It became clear to all parties of the case and to police and to the judge that the boys hadn’t committed any crime,” says chairman of the Helsinki Committee Avetik Ishkhanyan. “However, the court would have never closed the case as it would have meant that policemen had made a mistake and in its turn it would have immobilized police in conducting political persecutions.”
Ishkhanyan says that the court imposing even a symbolic fine (for a charge that the court itself ruled to be unfounded) is evidence that “police has more power than the court.”
Tigran Ter-Yesayan, head of the International Union of Armenian Lawyers, says that official data shows that this year more than 400 people have been subjected by court verdicts to administrative imprisonments and penalties for participating at oppositional demonstrations. Ter-Yesayan says the true number is higher, but that court records were not kept in all cases.
ArmeniaNow asked the Ministry of Justice for a list of the convictions. “We have no resources and possibilities for preparing such lists,” says Press Secretary of the Ministry of Justice Ara Saghatelyan.
Hakobyan and Alaverdyan’s trial was an exception to the normal hearings of those accused of similar politically-motivated misdemeanors.
Police were asked why the young men were charged..
Ter-Yesayan said he knows of only one case in which the accused was represented by an attorney and that most of the hearings have been held with only court administrators and police present.
“Hearings are private, as people don’t know where their relatives are so that they could go and at least be present at hearings,” Ter-Yesayan says.
Besides being subjected to administrative imprisonments and penalties criminal cases have been started against 12 people – seven have been released, four are in jail (including Arakelyan).
A number of non-governmental organizations were conducting mass meetings every day in front of the building of Prosecutor General Office of Armenia demanding that they are set free. Alaverdyan participated in the demonstrations.
“It seemed to police that I was from the opposition,” he says. “But I’m not engaged in any political party. The verdict against Edgar was simply unjust and it didn’t correspond to what he had done. That’s why I decided to begin attaching leaflets.”
After Arakelyan’s verdict and sentencing was announced, three people who had helped organize the demonstration that turned violent April 13 sent declarations to police, stating their own guilt at having committed such acts.
“I decided to own to the following: On April 12-13 I also took part in a peaceful demonstration taken place on Baghramyan Avenue, during which police of the free and independent Republic of Armenia in subjected us, demonstrators, to beatings. I also hit law-abiding officer with an empty Jermuk bottle (plastic).”
The statement is intended to express solidarity for the convicted.
“I made this statement because I was present at hearings and recalled that I had also a hit policeman,” says Lala Aslikyan, who works for World Study Organization.
“It is absurd when police break teeth and beat peaceful demonstrators, who came only for expressing their opinions,” Aslikayan says. “And after that, police remain unpunished while the demonstrator with broken teeth is sentenced to one and a half years of imprisonment for hitting one of those policemen with an empty plastic bottle.”