Armenian authorities should release a human rights defender detained by police on March 15, Human Rights Watch said today.

Police detained Arthur Sakunts, leader of the Vanadzor branch of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA), the day after the organization’s office was firebombed.
The HCA of Vanadzor, a town in northern Armenia, fielded observers in the recent presidential election, and planned a public meeting on March 15 to protest alleged poll violations. The arson attack and arrest followed growing pressure on the organization from the local authorities.

“Arthur Sakunts should be freed immediately and unconditionally,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “The arson attack on his office, and police abuse of their powers should be the focus of investigation—not a man who is advocating for Armenian voters’ rights.”

Sakunts is the first human rights defender to be arrested in the wave of arrests following the February 19 first round and March 5 runoff presidential elections. Victims of arrests, intimidation and punitive job dismissals to date have been either members of the political opposition, their relatives, or bus drivers who ferried people to opposition rallies.

In the early morning of March 14, an unknown party broke a glass panel in the entrance door of the Vanadzor HCA office and threw into it an incendiary device. Neighbors alerted the fire brigade to the flames and smoke. The fire was extinguished before it reached the main part of the office. The entry hall and ceiling were damaged.

The mayor of Vanadzor attempted to ban the HCA’s March 15 demonstration, citing a decree he issued in 2002, authorizing him to regulate public gatherings. However, an appeals court ruled the decree invalid, after a legal challenge brought last year by Sakunts.

At midday on Saturday March 15, up to fifty people assembled outside the HCA Vanadzor office, under the slogan “Defend Your Vote.” Police dispersed the gathering and led Sakunts away, supposedly to have a discussion with the local police chief.

In a practice that has become common in recent weeks, the informal “discussion” with Sakunts was transformed into police detention on a public order misdemeanor charge, under Armenia’s controversial, Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses. After a brief hearing, a court sentenced Sakunts to ten days of administrative detention.

Human Rights Watch and the Vanadzor HCA had planned joint research on the abusive practice of administrative detention. Armenian authorities use administrative detention to punish and intimidate demonstrators and political activists, and use it in more routine police work to circumvent due process guarantees for criminal suspects.

Post-election rallies have continued in support of Stepan Demirchian, who was defeated by incumbent president Robert Kocharian the March 5 runoff, which was marred by ballot stuffing and intimidation. Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian—a candidate who placed third in the first round—are each contesting the election results in the Armenian Constitutional Court.

Several opposition activists have reported to Human Rights Watch more police visits to their homes within the last week, with invitations to “discussions” with their local police chief.

Yesterday morning police also arrested at least two groups of opposition activists on the streets of central Yerevan. The activists were distributing leaflets announcing demonstrations to protest the March 15 arrest of Armen Sarkissian, brother of the head of the Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party, which is a key member of the opposition alliance supporting Demirchian. The arrests included:

  • Three students from the Hanrapetutiun youth wing—Vahan Babayan, and brothers Avetik and Rafik Ghazarian—reported arrested while leafleting near the Rossia cinema on Tigran Mets Street around 11:00 a.m.
  • Ararat Maloyan, Vrej Ghazarian, and Artur Martirossian, whom police beat and detained on Yerevan’s Mashtots Avenue around 10:30 a.m. Within two hours of the detention, representatives of Human Rights Watch and the Armenian Helsinki Association went to the central district police precinct, the Yerevan City Police Department, and the central district court, in an attempt to locate the three, but the authorities denied holding them. Later in the day, it was reported that one of the three detainees telephoned relatives, informing them they were at the Yerevan City Police Department.

Five of the six detainees were subsequently released.

Both Sarkissians are brothers of the late Vazgen Sarkissian, the prime minister who was assassinated in October 1999, together with Demirchian’s father, who at the time was speaker of parliament.

Sarkissian was arrested for alleged involvement in the December 2002 murder of Tigran Naghdalian, the head of Armenian public television. The government announced on March 5—runoff day—that it had detained several suspects, and pro-government newspapers indicated that the trail would lead to Armen Sarkissian.