(Berlin) – Armenian authorities should release a political activist who was arrested during a public gathering on January 1, 2016, and placed in pretrial detention, pending an impartial investigation into the charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also review police conduct at the gathering and possible police interference with the rights to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.

Police arrested Gevorg Safaryan at Yerevan’s Freedom Square at about 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day, amid a scuffle during a public event organized by members of the New Armenia Movement, a political opposition group. The authorities charged Safaryan with using violence against the police, and on January 3, a court granted a police investigator’s request to hold Safaryan in pretrial custody for two months.

“Given the minor nature of the incident, two months of pretrial custody is wholly unjustified,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “Pretrial detention should be a last resort, not the general rule, and only in cases where there is a well-founded fear that the person will evade justice or hinder the investigation.”

In a January 5 letter to Armenia’s prosecutor general, Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the charges against and pretrial detention of Safaryan and called for his release pending an investigation.

Safaryan’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the event organizers had notified the Yerevan city authorities in advance about their plans to hold a New Year’s celebration on Freedom Square.

Video footage of the incident available on YouTube shows a major police presence in the square as several dozen participants gathered on New Year’s Eve and in the early hours of January 1. When participants, dressed in costume for the New Year, attempted to bring a small New Year’s tree into the square, police told them they were not allowed to bring the tree there and confiscated it. When Safaryan and several others returned with a man wearing a tree costume, a scuffle broke out between police and some of the participants, and police detained Safaryan and several others.

Police released other participants the same day but charged Safaryan with using force against a representative of an authority under Criminal Code article 316.1, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Safaryan was transferred to Yerevan’s Nubarashen pretrial facility on January 3, after the court approved pretrial detention.

In reviewing police conduct at the event, the authorities should examine the instructions given to the police, Human Rights Watch said. The review should include instructions about the size of the law enforcement presence at the event, its terms of engagement, and any restrictions or conditions placed on the event’s participants, including regarding decorations and costumes.

Safaryan has been under investigation since April 2015 on mass disturbance charges, and in May was released from pretrial custody on his own recognizance. The court used the existing investigation to justify the decision to send him to pretrial custody, without looking into the substance of the new charges.

Holding Safaryan for two months is completely disproportionate given the absence of evidence that he poses a genuine risk to the investigation, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 9(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Armenia is a party, states that, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which provides authoritative interpretation of the covenant, has determined that bail should be granted except in cases in which there is a likelihood that the accused would abscond, destroy evidence, or influence witnesses.

“In the absence of any compelling reason for keeping Safaryan behind bars, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the authorities are targeting – and jailing – him to interfere with his peaceful political activism,” Gogia said.