Political Prisoners?: Opposition, human rights activists decry verdict, sentences in Shant Harutyunyan trial

The trial of Shant Harutyunyan and his friends, which lasted for almost a year, ended last week in a verdict passed by a Yerevan court, which was followed by strong reaction from human rights activists and the opposition.

Last year, on November 5 near Mashtots Avenue in Yerevan a clash between the police and a group of protesters resulted in the arrest of the 48-year-old leader of the Tseghakron party, Shant Harutyunyan and 13 other citizens. Harutyunyan and others were accused of applying dangerous and non-dangerous violence in relation to representatives of authorities. Before the November 5, 2013 clash Harutyunyan had been on a sit-in strike for several days in Liberty Square under the slogan of “I am starting a revolution”.

On October 17, Judge Mnatsakan Martirosyan sentenced Shant Harutyunyan – the initiator of “I am starting a revolution” protest, his underage son and 12 other friends to prison terms ranging from 1 to 7 years.

Shant Harutyunyan’s 14-year-old son, Shahen, got a suspended four-year jail term.

Justice Martirosyan is known to the public since 2002 by sentencing Aghamal Harutyunyan, the bodyguard of the second Armenian president Robert Kocharyan, to merely a year’s imprisonment in the murder case of Poghos Poghosyan, who was beaten to death on September 24, 2001 allegedly for inappropriately greeting the ex-president.

Yesterday at the National Assembly a number of parliamentarians described Shant Harutyunyan and his friends’ trial verdict and sentences as unjust considering them political prisoners. The opposition Heritage and ANC parties also said they considered Shant Harutyunyan and the other convicts to be political prisoners.

Heritage mentioned that a significant part of the public expected the acquittal of the accused; however when the trial was not finished yet in his speech made in Colombia University in the United States President Serzh Sragsyan referred to the defendants as criminals. Human rights activists say he thus violated the principle of the presumption of innocence.

On September 26 at Colombia University Serzh Sragsyan was asked whether there are political prisoners in Armenia. He answered that there are none. Sargsyan was asked about Shant Harutyunyan, in response to which the president said that Shant Harutyunyan committed a crime.

According to human rights defenders, the president factually violated the presumption of the person’s innocence. He labeled Shant Harutyunyan a criminal without the court’s verdict, which also assumes pressure on the court – indirect pressure on the court. According to the Armenian constitution, only the court decides whether a person is guilty or not.

Helsinki Committee chairman Avetik Ishkhanyan said that Shant Harutyunyan’s act was simply a performance of a revolution – not at all necessary to be labeled as crime. “As a result of this performance nothing happened to anyone, it was simply an alarm to the government, and for that alarm Shant Harutyunyan was not supposed to be punished so violently.”

Harutyunyan and his son’s, as well as Vardan Vardanyan’s lawyer Inesa Petrosyan said after the verdict that the court was supposed to recognize that they took to the streets because of their political views and that they were innocent.

Parliament Speaker Galust Sahakyan told reporters that political prisoners are not for our modern times, and political prisoners were those running secret affairs at Soviet times.

“People say whatever they want to and Shant Harutyunyan as well. There is no issue about political prisoners, I know Shant Harutyunyan very well and I am sorry for the event. It is a way of hardships, obstacles, tortures for a political prisoner,” the top legislator said.

Minister of Justice Hovhannes Manukyan to comment on the case over the weekend, saying that he expected Shant Harutyunyan and others to appeal the verdict and sentences.

“Considering this, I want to refrain from any influence on the judicial system, specifically on the Court of Appeal, and at this moment I will not make any comments regarding the case,” the minister said.