(Berlin) – Armenian authorities released five political opposition activists on May 4, 2015, pending investigation into controversial charges of plotting street violence in the capital, Yerevan, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should independently review the charges, which reflect possible interference with the activists’ rights to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.
On May 4, the prosecutor general’s office ordered the release of five members of the Founding Parliament political movement: its chairman, Garegin Chukaszyan, founding member Jirair Sefilyan, and Varuzhan Avetisyan, Pavel Manukyan, and Gevorg Safaryan. The activists had to sign a pledge not to leave Yerevan for the duration of pending investigation into “mass disturbances.”
“The Armenian authorities’ decision to release the activists after almost a month of pretrial custody is a positive step,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now the authorities should make sure that these charges were not brought in violation of the right to assembly and expression.”
In an April 27 letter to the Prosecutor General, Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the charges against, and pretrial detention of, the opposition members and called for their release pending the investigation. Yerevan police arrested the five men on April 7, searched their homes and Founding Parliament’s office, and seized wooden bats, kitchen knives, a stun gun, and a publicly available Founding Parliament pamphlet published last year.
On April 9, the Special Investigation Service charged all five men with planning a mass disturbance and preparation to commit a crime. The authorities claimed that the men plotted to provoke street violence in Yerevan during the April 24 commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The group had applied and received approval from the Yerevan municipality to hold the peaceful rally near the Erebuni Library, in Yerevan’s southeast district. However, on April 10, the Kentron Nork-Marash District Court in Yerevan approved the investigation’s request to send all five men to pretrial custody.
In the letter, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the Founding Parliament members were being targeted for their peaceful political beliefs and affiliation and that the charges were intended to interfere with their right to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, as protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Armenia is a party. Founding Parliament’s booklet and advertisement for the rally called for civil disobedience and peaceful political change.
In the letter, Human Rights Watch also highlighted possible punitive nature of putting the opposition members in prisons with convicted prisoners, some in overcrowded cells, and withholding the detainees’ right to family visits.
Article 9(3) of the ICCPR states that, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.”
“Freeing the activists was the right thing to do, in light of Founding Parliament’s nonviolent views and in the absence of a lawful and credible basis for their detention,” Gogia said. “The authorities should now also ensure the activists’ right to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.”