Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Need for Justice: Fair hearings crucial for public trust, but so far lacking

By Gayane Abrahamyan
ArmeniaNow reporter
Published: 01 March, 2009

On these March days a year ago Yerevan police departments were jammed by the rounding up of political rally demonstrators and, generally, those sympathetic to Armenia’s opposition. After March 1 some 5,000 were detained and about 500 held for 72 hours or more in what was broadly seen as a “witch hunt”.

In the coming days 142 would be charged with criminal cases from which 35 would be dropped due to lack of evidence. Today 60 remain imprisoned and 10 – including the “Case of 7” are in court.

“Seven out of every 10 of those brought to police, detained and arrested, have undergone violent treatment and tortures, with no forensic examination in most of the cases,” said Armen Khachatryan, coordinator of the Center for Legal Support to Political Prisoners.

Armenia’s Ombudsman Armen Harutyunyan said several months ago: “The court trial of the March events is a touchstone for the court system of the Republic of Armenia, and the Case of the Seven will be the litmus paper for the whole chain.”

How Bloody Saturday unfolded. Click here for a timeline of events.“Obviously there are cases that won’t stand the trial at the Strasburg Court. More than 19 people were sentenced based on the evidence from the police officers alone. There has been no aggrieved party in many cases and many witnesses have refused to give evidence,” the ombudsman said.

Charges brought against former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Arzumanyan, National Assembly members Hakob Hakobyan, Sasun Mikayelyan, and Myasnik Malkhasyan, former mayor of Abovyan Grigor Voskerchyan, members of the Armenian All-National Movement Suren Sirunyan and Shant Harutyunyan are based on part 3 of Article 225 (“organization of mass disorders accompanied with murders”) and part 1 of Article 300 (“for forceful usurpation of state power”) of the Criminal Code of Armenia that provide 6 to 15 years of imprisonment.

Attached to the “Case of 7” are charges implicating the accused in the deaths of the 10 who died as a result of March 1 violence.

Vahagn Harutyunyan, senior coroner at Special Investigation Service, recently announced at the RA National Assembly that they had not directly committed murders, however, “they were supposed to foresee and prevent the murders.” (The charges include those who were determined to have been killed by police, apparently through the misuse of special-issue riot guns. See "They Mock our Dead")

What really happened and who bears the blame of March 1 remains undetermined, lost in contradictions.

In March, 2008 the Prosecutor General Office insisted that no weapons had been fired on civilians. A couple months later, however, information about the use of the ‘Cheryomukha 7’ riot weapon was revealed.

In April, police denied that snipers had been planted around the perimeter of the violence, but six months later an investigation committee discovered that snipers had been deployed.

It remains unknown whether any of the 10 deaths were the work of snipers, still the seven political figures at trial bear the burden of even those deaths. (See Trial and Error?)

Revelations from Armenia’s worst civil uprising still come in as trials unfold, but monitoring bodies – including the Ombudsman’s Office and the OSCE – refuse to gives assessments of the proceedings until all cases have been resolved.

Civil rights activist Mikayel Danielyan, President of the Helsinki Association, categorically states that even without reports the major part of the court cases are groundless.

“It’s hard to point to a case, when substantial proofs have been submitted. The controversial evidence of the witnesses sometimes turns into mockery. Any of the cases that reaches the European Court with such ungrounded proofs, will win,” Danielyan said.

The problem of evidence was a serious failure in the March 1 cases.

Many cases were grounded exceptionally on the evidence of the police, which the human rights defender called unacceptable:

“The PACE resolution clearly indicates the evidences of the police alone, in case of the lack of others, are not trustworthy, as the clashes have been between the police and the public, whereas many people were tried in such conditions,” Ombudsman Harutyunyan said.

Witnesses have also testified that evidence was gathered by force and intimidation.

One person called for testimony wrote a letter to court asking that the testimony be stricken because he/she (the witness identity is being protected) gave false testimony against Myasnik Malkhasyan after being beaten.

“I wrote down my evidence under dictation, and by force. I am still afraid of living in my apartment, because I am persecuted and I am confident they will take me to police again,” the letter states. “I have received serious injuries because of their beating.

Such cases are not unique. For instance, 9 of the 11 witnesses, who testified against the chairman of the Democratic Fatherland Party Petros Makeyan, publicly recanted their evidence in the court hall, explaining the evidence was brought under the dictation of the investigator, with the use of force and pressure. However, Makeyan was sentenced to three years in jail.

The most controversial case was that of Karen Hayrapetyan, who told to the court he had never written evidence, had never been questioned, had never seen the person against whom the evidence was written.

Twenty of Hayrapetyan’s co-villagers from Hartavan (near the town of Aparan), and the head of the village, signed a document stating that Hayrapetyan was in the village on March 1 and 2. But the court would insist, Hayrapetyan had been in Yerevan and had seen the fight in Opera Square.

On January 20 of this year Hayrapetyan was sentenced to a year in jail for recanting his evidence and lying to the court.

“This was done for just one thing – so that the rest of the witnesses dare not tell the truth,” said Hayrapetyan’s father Paruyr. (See Conscripted to Conceit)

The authorities have promised to solve the problem of political prisoners and to release them by making amendments in the laws before the April session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). But many here assert that the only solution to the ongoing crisis caused by the lingering and dubious court cases is an impartial investigation.

“The public today waits for a fair investigation. The biased and unjust investigation into the March tragedy will have the most serious consequences,” the ombudsman said. “Unjust trials, violation of rights and social injustice will result in other March 1s, whether of minor or large scale.”

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