Why Armenia’s prime minister is a threat to rule of law

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Nikolai Pashinyan hold a joint presser after their conversation at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 1 February 2019. [Photo: Hayoung Jeon/EPA/EFE]

Robert Kocharyan, one of Armenia’s former presidents, sent this op-ed from prison, accusing the current prime minister of abuse of power, at a time when in his words Nikol Pashinyan is on “a photo-op tour of European capitals pledging his commitment to strengthening the rule of law”.

Robert Kocharyan served as the second President of Armenia between 1998 and 2008. He was previously president of the internationally unrecognised territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1994 to 1997 and prime minister of Armenia from 1997 to 1998. He was arrested on 7 December 2018 and charged with “overthrowing constitutional order of Armenia” during the final weeks of his rule.

Arrested for the second time just two days before December’s parliamentary elections, I continue to be unlawfully held in prison awaiting the start of a trial. I am banned from travelling; stripped of my Presidential immunity guaranteed by the Constitution; deprived of my fundamental rights; prevented from exercising my civil and political rights, and denigrated in public statements by the Prime Minister of my country.

I note that concurrently, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is on a photo-op tour of European capitals pledging his commitment to strengthening the rule of law, ensuring an independent judiciary, protecting human rights and restoring democracy to Armenia.

I am being held in prison unlawfully because I am an opposition politician, critical of Nikol Pashinyan’s unrestrained populism. I am a challenger capable of holding him accountable on the real problems Armenians care about – state governance, national security, and the economy.

Who is Nikol Pashinyan anyway?  He is the protest ringleader of the March 2008 post-Presidential election demonstrations, who fomented mass riots which turned violent in the streets of Yerevan.  Eight private citizens and two police officers lost their lives, 187 police officrs and 32 protesters were injured.

Can I expect that an individual who was hellbent then on violently overthrowing the government will now respect and uphold the Rule of Law?

I am charged with allegedly “overthrowing the Constitutional order”, though the meaning of this charge is not clear to me, my lawyers or the wider public.  We surmise that I am charged for  deploying police and the military to quell the March 2008 riots and restore order and security to the capital Yerevan.

Yet there was no direct engagement between the army and the protesters. The army’s role in Yerevan was to protect government and other important buildings, not large scale law enforcement operations as such.

And remember that the uprising determined to bring down the State by violent means, was led by Nikol Pashinyan and his associates.

Can I hope that an individual, sentenced to seven years prison on charges of mass disturbance leading to a fatality, who absconded from justice to avoid arrest, will now respect due legal process towards others?

Can I have confidence that an individual who shamelessly intimidates and threatens judges against neutrality in public statements will now disengage from interfering from a fabricated trial of his political nemesis?

No, I cannot, and the international community of leaders, judges and defenders of human rights would be mindful to judge Nikol Pashinyan by his actions at home, not his speeches abroad. If he is serious about implementing reforms in exchange for EU support and partnership, Armenia’s Prime Minister is under obligation to adhere to established international rules safeguarding human rights and freedoms, and judicial independence.

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has already sounded the alarm following her visit to the country late 2018. Commissioner Dunja Mijatović has welcomed an investigation into the March 2008 violence yet stressed that the process must be conducted “in strict adherence to the principles of rule of law, judicial independence, transparency and guarantees of fair trial, in order to dispel any accusations of alleged revenge politics or selective justice. She also called on the Armenian authorities to protect the presumption of innocence of any person charged with criminal misconduct and to avoid using polarising, stigmatising or inflammatory language in their public discourse.”

My legal team have written a letter to Commissioner Dunja Mijatović to inform her of my detention pre-trial, highlighting the innumerable violations of internationally-recognised legal principles by the Prime Minister, the head of Armenia’s Intelligence Service, and the investigative body for the case, the Special Investigation Service.

Make no mistake – this is a politically motivated prosecution, instigated and stirred up by the rabble-rouser protestor of the events of March 2008, determined to radicalise the population. And after me, who will be next?

Which is why I call on the leaders of the Council of Europe and of the European Union to stand by my side, and demand the full and strict compliance by Armenian authorities to International Human Rights standards, including a fair trial and protection from discrimination.

I am ready to hold this government to account before the people of Armenia,  and this is why this government is politically prosecuting and persecuting me.  The people of Armenia must have the option to choose between a zealous populist who disregards national and international law at home, and an authentic leader who cautiously acts within its boundaries.

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