International elections observers have opined that the peaceful transfer of power through a country’s elections is the sign of a democracy. Having been an observer at the February presidential election in Armenia, I find myself contrasting the presidential races in both the United States and here. I am monitoring trials of defendants who were arrested and charged as a result of election and post-election activities.
In Armenia, an aftermath of the presidential election is the use of the judicial system and the legal system for political oppression of those who did not support the current president. The government has brought cases against supporters of the opposition candidates and innocent bystanders. The charges of the defendants are considered to be politically motivated. For each trial monitored, I submit a report on the stages of the trial and deficiencies noted in the judicial process to the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is following 156 cases. The cases being monitored include detention hearings, summary (guilty pleas) trials and trials.
Some of the violations are egregious. In one recent case in the capital, Yerevan, protestors in the courtroom refused to stand when the judge entered. The police in the courtroom removed two young men and used electric probes on them to remove them from the building.
Political detainees charged include those arrested on March 1, 2008, a day ending in violence that marked the start of the state of emergency in Armenia. Other cases include some that do not appear politically motivated on the surface. One involves criminal tax charges against the owner of a restaurant who provided pizzas to the tent city in Liberty Square, where protestors were camped out. The restaurant owner was a supporter of the opposition; both he and his accountant are in jail.
Advocates, i.e., licensed lawyers, are defending some of these detainees. However, some advocates are afraid to take these cases because of the power of the government, which has been used to quiet opposition leaders to the current regime.
Ordinary citizens have taken extreme measures to register their protest as shown in this article in the local newspaper:
YEREVAN, MAY 13, NOYAN TAPAN. As of 10:00, May 13, 17 people are on hunger-strike in the Shirak region…. [T}hey have gone on a termless hunger-strike, until the authorities sustain their demands, release the political prisoners.
The people who have gone on hunger-strike said in private conversations that it is Armenia’s authoritarian regime that has forced them to take this extreme measure. “Unless this measure helps, we also know other, stricter measures, which we will use no doubt,” the youngest and the oldest of them said.
[They are] demanding releasing Ashot Zakarian and other political prisoners.
Ashot Zakarian is accused of hindering the process of voting during the presidential elections and is under arrest. On May 12, the trial on his case was once more postponed for indefinite time in the Gyumri residence of the RA Northern Criminal Court.
One trial in a village outside the capital illustrates the use of the legal process for political means. A leader of a local military service veteran group declared his support for an opposition candidate in the presidential election. The police started to investigate him and his colleagues prior to the election. A search warrant or writ was obtained to search one man’s home. Under Armenian law, if a suspect voluntarily relinquishes a contraband item such as a gun or drugs, the case is dropped. In this case the veteran gave the police officer the contraband before the search of his home was done. Therefore, under Armenia law, the case should have dropped. The case was not dropped but rather put on the shelf. After the election, the veteran group decided to protest by staging a hunger strike in their village. The defendant announced he would participate in this protest; the police arrested him and added other criminal charges, including possession of the contraband. In this case, which I monitored, the defendant was placed in a cage in the court room. The defense attorneys had to orally request of the judge to have the defendant removed from the cage.
As these trials move through the judicial system, certain similarities emerge. Sometimes the charging documents even have the facts from another case and the document is a copy with only the caption changed. Sometimes there are no witnesses other than police to support the charges. Often the times of the arrests are tied to a political action by the defendant. As a lawyer, it is sobering to watch a legal system so blatantly manipulated for political means.
Barbara L. Edin is a Maryland attorney working overseas.