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Pashinyan grapples with political prisoner controversy

The new prime minister came to power promising to release the country’s political prisoners, but one such prisoner said he’s not following through.

Ani Mejlumyan Sep 4, 2018
The son of a prominent Armenian political prisoner has called on his father to be released and has threatened to disrupt the upcoming Francophone summit to be held in Yerevan. The controversy is the latest episode of an ongoing political challenge to new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to office on a promise to release all the country’s political prisoners but now says he can not interfere with the justice system.

The prisoner in question, Shant Harutyunyan, was convicted in 2014 for calling for the overthrow of the Armenian government, then led by President Serzh Sargsyan. He was given a six-year prison sentence.

On August 26, Harutyunyan’s son Shahen released a video calling on Pashinyan to release his father. “I was one of the first people to stand by Pashinyan when the revolution started,” he said. “It didn’t even cross my mind to have a private talk with Pashinyan and convince him to release my father because I had no doubt that he will be released but the reality is different.”

A Pashinyan spokesman, Arman Yeghoyan, said that the government has offered to change Shant Harutyunyan’s sentence to an “open regime,” under which Harutyunyan would only have to spend between 8 pm and 8 am every day in prison.

“The only legitimate authority of the government is to change the detention regime,” Yeghoyan said. “Shant Harutyunyan may be released at any time when he agrees to sign the documents necessary to change the detention regime.”

But Harutyunyan has rejected that offer, demanding a full acquittal. “The open regime is still a detention method. That does not mean getting rid of the sentence. This simply means the mitigation of the sentence,” Shahen Harutyunyan said.

Shahen Harutyunyan said he plans to hold protests during the summit of French-speaking nations, known as “Days of Francophonie,” which will bring a large number of heads of state and other dignitaries to Yerevan in early October. The event will become “Days of Shantophonie,” Shahen Harutyunyan told Eurasianet. “I’m going to execute my constitutional right to hold a peaceful protest.”

Shahen Harutyunyan has a knack for calling attention to his father’s plight: he made international headlines in 2015 when he invaded the pitch during an Armenia-Portugal soccer match with a banner supporting his father. “Super-fast pitch invader disrupts Portugal vs. Armenia Euro qualifier to protest dad’s imprisonment,” went the Washington Post headline.

On September 3, Pashinyan himself addressed the situation. “I won’t give instructions to the judiciary and I cannot call and order Shant Harutyunyan to be acquitted. If we take that direction we will end up in a wrong place,” he said in a Facebook video address.

Shant Harutyunyan responded via his son’s Facebook page, complaining that he has no means of speaking with journalists to get his point of view out. “If Nikol Pashinyan doesn’t want to act like Serzh Sargsyan, he should give me the opportunity to meet with journalists. That would be fair and moral,” he said.

Pashinyan has recognized that Harutyunyan was imprisoned for political reasons, and before being elected he prioritized the release of Armenia’s political prisoners. “Political prisoners in Armenia must be immediately released,” he said on April 26, after Sargsyan stepped down but before Pashinyan became prime minister. “I just have to ask people to be a little more patient for a few days so that these issues can be solved.”

But the issue has proven difficult for Pashinyan. An Armenian court released several of the country’s most prominent political prisoners in June, including hardline Armenian opposition leader Jirayr Sefilian, with the help of several of Pashinyan’s political allies. But it didn’t happen as immediately as Pashinyan had promised, prompting some to complain that he was dragging his feet for his own political reasons.

Harutyunyan should be released and acquitted, but he should be addressing his pleas to Armenia’s general prosecutor instead of the prime minister, said Arthur Sakunts, chair of the human rights group Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor. “What he is asking of Pashinyan is completely illegal,” Sakunts told Eurasianet. “The general prosecutor can file a petition to the court. The only thing that government can do is to change the detention regime,” he said.

Sakunts had previously appealed on Facebook for the general prosecutor to release Harutyunyan.

“Mr General Prosecutor, be courageous and mediate in the court for the recognition of Shant Harutyunyan and his friends as innocent. Shant Harutyunyan is a political prisoner, and in our current Armenia there should not be even one political prisoner. That’s not populism, but a restoration of justice.”

Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.


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