On Monday a court in Armenia sentenced opposition activist, Gevorg Safaryan, to two years in prison. The charges were linked to a scuffle with police during a small New Year’s Eve demonstration one year ago, an incident caught on video that seems to show police harassing and interfering with demonstrators leading an initially calm atmosphere to shift to one of violence.
While Safaryan will be imprisoned, no police have been held to account for their role. Once again, Armenian authorities appear quick to punish and silence activists, while refusing to acknowledge any negative, and potentially unlawful, role police may play in disrupting peaceful protests.
Police arrested Safaryan and several others dressed in costume to mark New Year’s Eve in central Yerevan’s Freedom Square with a public event. Organizers had notified city officials about their plans in advance, as required by law. Safaryan is a well-known member of the opposition New Armenia Public Movement and frequent organizer of protests in recent years, much to the ire of the authorities. Yerevan deployed a substantial police presence to the New Year’s Eve event.
The gathering wasn’t large, but as participants tried to place a small New Year’s tree in the square, police quickly stopped them. Safaryan and others pressed on with the event, bringing a man dressed like a holiday tree into the group. When police again intervened, a scuffle broke out. Although the others arrested were released, police charged Safaryan with using force against police, and he has been in custody for more than a year, awaiting trial. Human Rights Watch criticized the lack of reasonable grounds for the pretrial detention.
Safaryan strongly denies the charges and sees his conviction as an attempt to stifle his criticism of the government. The detention – and now conviction – will be quite effective in keeping Safaryan out of public life.
Meanwhile, a criminal investigation into police actions produced no results, and officials closed it. Activists are making their final appeal this month in court against the decision.
It seems that authorities are solidifying an unfortunate tradition of failing to hold to account police who wrongfully interfere with freedom of assembly. They shouldn’t. Traditions are best left for New Year’s Eve and other celebrations. Investigations should mean accountability for those responsible, not just for activists.