Dear Mr. Kostanyan:
Please accept my regards on behalf of Human Rights Watch. We are writing to you to voice our concern about the pretrial detention of Gevorg Safaryan, a member of the New Armenia Movement, a political grouping, and to call on your office to take action to safeguard his rights.
As you may know, Human Rights Watch is an international, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that advocates respect for human rights worldwide. We have worked on human rights issues in Armenia and engaged in regular dialogue with the Armenian government for over two decades.
Police in Yerevan arrested Safaryan at approximately 1 a.m. on January 1, 2016 during a public event organized by members of the New Armenia Movement. Organizers had notified the city authorities in advance about their plans to hold a New Year’s celebration on Freedom Square. Although only several dozen participants appear to have gathered, there was a major law enforcement presence on the square. When participants, dressed in costume for the New Year, attempted to place a small New Year’s tree on the square, police intervened and confiscated the tree, telling the gathered that they were not allowed to bring such trees onto the square. When Safaryan and several others returned towards the square with a man wearing a tree costume, a scuffle broke out between police and some of the event participants, and police detained Safaryan and several others.
Police arrested Safaryan and charged him with using force against the police (Criminal Code article 316.1: Violence against a Representative of Authorities), which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Police released the other detainees. On January 3, a court granted a police investigator’s request to remand Safaryan to pretrial custody for two months. On the same day, Safaryan was transferred to Nubarashen pretrial detention center in Yerevan. Safaryan’s lawyer plans to appeal the decision.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that Safaryan is being deprived of his liberty for two months during the investigation. The court justified the decision for pretrial custody on the grounds of the existence of a separate criminal investigation pending against Safaryan. Safaryan has been under investigation since April 2015 on mass disturbance charges, and had been released from pretrial custody on his own recognizance. Without looking into the substance of the new charges, the court on January 3 stated that Safaryan may commit a repeat offense if released.
As you know, pretrial detention should be considered a last resort. 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. Given the minor nature of the incident that is the stated basis for the arrest, we believe that Safaryan should be freed, pending the investigation.
Deprivation of liberty for two months represents a serious restriction imposed on Safaryan that is wholly unjustified on the facts or by reference to international standards and disproportionate given the absence of any genuine risk to the investigation he poses. Human Rights Watch is concerned that in reality the authorities are targeting Safaryan for his membership in a political opposition group and his peaceful political beliefs and that the measure of restraint imposed is intended to interfere with his right to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly as protected by the ICCPR.
As noted above, Safaryan also faces mass disturbance charges stemming from a political rally he had been planning to coincide with the April 24, 2015 events commemorating the 1915 Armenian genocide. In our April 27, 2015 letter to you, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the charges against Safaryan and four other activists involved in planning the event may have reflected interference with the activists’ rights to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly. In our letter we asked that the charges be reviewed and that the activists be released pending prompt, impartial, and credible investigation into the charges. Following activists’ release from pretrial custody, we published a press release calling the decision to release them a “positive step.”
We urge you to release Safaryan from custody, pending a prompt, impartial, and credible investigation into the charges against him deriving from the January 1, 2016 incident. We also request that you independently review the instructions given to the police regarding the size of the law enforcement presence at the event, terms of engagement, any restrictions or conditions placed on the event’s participants, including regarding decorations and costumes, and whether these conditions were reasonable and made clear in advance.
We thank you for your attention to this letter.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch