The controversial trial of seven Armenian opposition figures prosecuted on coup charges descended into chaos and was interrupted on Tuesday as they were forcibly removed from the courtroom after ugly scenes involving their relatives and law-enforcement officials.
It was also marred by allegations that one of the defendants was beaten up in jail earlier in the day.
More than two dozen plainclothes police officers, who presented themselves as “victims” of the post-election street clashes in Yerevan, were unexpectedly brought into the courtroom, restricting the already limited space there. As a result, court officials ordered journalists to follow proceedings from monitors placed in an adjacent room.
Moments later a bitter altercation broke out between the policemen and defendants’ relatives who managed to enter the court building in Yerevan’s Shengavit district. They traded insults before the presiding judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, belatedly took the bench.
Martirosian said the court session is starting 40 minutes later than planned because one of the defendants, Grigor Voskerchian, was ill. The claim prompted angry protests from the defendants, causing the judge to call a 30-minute break.
Voskerchian’s lawyer, Stepan Voskanian, said afterwards that his client was assaulted in his prison cell by the commander of a special security force which he said inspected Yerevan’s Nubarashen jail in the morning. He claimed that the officer “repeatedly hit him in the face” after finding out that Voskerchian is one of the oppositionists charged with plotting to overthrow the government in the wake of last February’s presidential election.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry department managing Armenia’s prisons categorically denied the claims.
Meanwhile, Martirosian ordered court guards to take away the defendants, saying that they demonstratively refused to stand up when he walked into the courtroom. One of them, Suren Sirunian, was already expelled for contempt of court at the start of the trial on Friday. The judged also decided to adjourn the hearings until December 27.
Outside the court building, a large group of opposition supporters holding placards and pictures of jailed oppositionists again gathered to protest against what they see as a politically motivated show trial. Tension rose after police officers guarding the building refused to let in several opposition leaders and relatives of the defendants.
“Space is limited,” Valeri Osipian, a lieutenant-colonel leading the policemen, told Levon Zurabian, a leading member of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK).
Osipian also argued angrily with another HAK leader, former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian. “I will force you to do what I’m telling you if you break the law,” he warned Bagratian.
The defendants, among them former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian and three opposition parliamentarians, stand accused of organizing “mass riots accompanied by murders” and attempting to “usurp state authority by force.” One of the lawmakers, Miasnik Malkhasian, is also charged with personally leading angry opposition supporters that clashed with security forces in Yerevan on March 1.
At least eight civilians and two police servicemen were killed in what the Armenian authorities say was a botched opposition attempt to stage a coup d’etat. Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition presidential candidate, and his allies strongly deny the coup allegation, saying that the authorities deliberately used lethal force to enforce official vote results that gave victory to the establishment candidate Serzh Sarkisian.
The high-profile trial got underway two days after a key panel of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) described these and other jailed oppositionists as political prisoners and urged the PACE to impose sanctions on Yerevan. The United States has also been pressing for the release of most of the detainees. The authorities maintain that none of them is a political prisoner.