By Anna Saghabalian
A human rights lawyer who has helped Yerevan residents facing eviction from their homes to sue the Armenian government has been arrested on fraud charges which he believes were fabricated in response to his activities, it emerged on Wednesday.
Close associates and clients of Vahe Grigorian, head of a Yerevan-based law firm called Right, said he was detained by officers of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) and promptly remanded in pre-trial custody by a court on Tuesday.
The NSS opened a criminal case against Grigorian last May shortly after raiding Right’s offices and confiscating some of its documents. The Armenian successor to the Soviet-era KGB alleges that the lawyer cheated a client, a charge he strongly denies.
Speaking at a news conference in June, Grigorian claimed that the criminal proceedings were brought in retaliation for his legal assistance to residents of old neighborhoods in central Yerevan that are subject to demolition as part of its massive government-sanctioned redevelopment. Many of those residents complain that financial compensation offered to them by the state is extremely low because of high-level government corruption.
Some of them have taken legal action against the Yerevan municipality, but virtually all of those lawsuits were deemed unsubstantiated by local courts. Grigorian and his firm have helped several such families take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. in Strasbourg.
Minas Safian is a member of one of those families. He and other remaining residents of Buzand Street in downtown Yerevan expressed their solidarity with the arrested lawyer at an improvised open-air news conference. “With Vahe’s arrest we lost our only source of hope,” Safian told RFE/RL.
“He is one of the few lawyers who has protected our interests,” said another resident.
According to Artur Grigorian, one of Vahe Grigorian’s defense counsels, the NSS, which is supposed to investigate only grave crimes, has failed to substantiate its charges. But the feared security agency has previously denied any wrongdoing.
The Yerevan municipality, for its part, insists that the Buzand Street protesters represents only a small minority of hundreds of dislocated families which it says have been properly compensated. However, the integrity of the process has been seriously questioned by Armenia’s state human rights defender, Larisa Alaverdian. Incidentally, Alaverdian earlier condemned the NSS actions against Right. Her office has closely cooperated with the law firm.