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The prisoner of Yerevan: an American's unfortunate journey back to Armenia

In Armenia, repatriates from the US enjoy comfortable middle-class lives — unless they engage in political activism.

July 2014: police officers block activists from "Stand up, Armenia!" from moving towards Yerevan's Freedom Square. (c) Asatur Yesayants / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.Over the last decade, President Serzh Sargsyan has ruled over Armenia in a style that Freedom House ambiguously calls “soft authoritarianism”. Sargsyan’s rule is characterised by widespread police violence and unlawful detention of journalists and activists. Falling short of the outright dictatorship in force in neighbouring Azerbaijan, Sargsyan’s authoritarian regime has managed to maintain a tight grip on power. It has steadily cleared the political field, leaving the electoral politics a doomed adventure for any force except the ruling party, but has maintained relative press freedom and freedom of speech, especially online.

Halfway into Sargsyan’s second term as president, there are few political opposition forces independent from his administration. One non-parliamentary group, known as Founding Parliament, has attracted attention for its nationalist rhetoric, radical social justice platform and refusal to engage in electoral politics. The group’s core of Karabakh veterans from the 1990s has ensured a uncompromising stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — a position common to Armenians inside and outside the country, as well as the majority of politicians and activists across the political spectrum.  

Indeed, the brief, but tragic flare-up of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016 provoked a wave of “national unity” — and public calls for a firmer position on the disputed territory of Karabakh. Three months later, an armed group seized a Yerevan police station, accusing the Armenian authorities of “endangering the security” of the country through their military conduct. Six members of Founding Parliament, including the group’s vice president, were among the gunmen.

One of the people detained during the security operation that followed was Garo Yegnukian, an American Armenian supporter of the group. He has now spent 18 months in pre-trial detention on charges of assisting hostage-taking — despite the fact that he bears no direct relation to the siege.

Garo Yegnukian in court. Source: Yegnukian family. Armenian society is divided on the precinct takeover, and opinions vary on Yegnukian's case. For some, his public support for the gunmen and ties to diaspora organisations make him an apologist of terrorism and a foreign spy. Others call Yegnukian a political prisoner, pointing out at his long record of political activism and intimidation from the Armenian security services. Throughout the last nine years, he was involved in many protest actions. His car was burnt, his family was followed, and together with other protesters he was assaulted by the police.

But no matter political views, many across the political spectrum agree with human rights advocates and US officials that Yegnukian's case is marked by the excessive use of pre-trial detention.

Mason and spy

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, thousands of Americans with Armenian roots have moved to the South Caucasian republic to join what they see as a nation-building effort — and Yegnukian is no exception.

Born in 1959 in Soviet Armenia, Yegnukian emigrated with his family to the US in the 1970s. In 2009, after building a real estate company in Brooklyn with his brother, Garo, together with his wife and their five children, became repatriates to Armenia, too.

The Yegnukian family, with Garo Yegnukian (centre). Source: Yegnukian family. Yegnukian’s move was followed by a growing political engagement with Armenia. Soon after moving, he became involved in local movements against the way the city’s Mashtots Park was being managed, as well as the 2012 Vahe Avetyan case, in which an army doctor died from being beaten by an oligarch’s bodyguard — it was around this time that Yegnukian joined Founding Parliament as well.

According to Yegnukian’s brother, the group’s leader Jirayr Sefilian, a popular Lebanese-born military commander, asked if he could use a building Yegnukian owned in downtown Yerevan as the group’s office “for a couple of months”. They’ve never moved out.

Yegnukian’s family confirm that they were followed and intimidated after the Pak Shouka protest until Garo’s arrest. One of their cars was damaged, another set on fire

In 2013, Yegnukian founded the Rights and Support Foundation, an initiative to provide legal and financial support to persecuted activists and their families. The same year, a banner featuring Yegnukian’s photo captioned “mason”, “foreign spy” and “grant eater” was installed on the front of the central Pak Shouka market. The banner is believed to be a warning from MP Samvel Aleksanyan, a hypermarket chain owner who turned the market into one of his stores. Yegnukian had participated in protests against the transformation of the historical landmark into a shopping centre. Yegnukian’s family confirm that they were followed and intimidated after the Pak Shouka protest until Garo’s arrest. One of their cars was damaged, another set on fire.

In January 2015, Founding Parliament members were stopped and beaten by the police when trying to enter the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, a disputed region controlled by Armenian forces — and which refused Selifian’s rally entry most likely to keep Yerevan sweet. The Yegnukian brothers were among them. Few months later, Armenian law enforcement searched the group’s office without a warrant. They confiscated the tapes made on a car video recorder that had documented police brutality.

July stand-off

Twenty two years after a ceasefire agreement froze the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the resumption of conflict in April 2016 resulted in the deaths of 94 Armenian soldiers, including volunteers and reservists, and the loss of three-square miles of territory to Azerbaijan. This galvanised the country’s Karabakh war veterans, including those who were members of Founding Parliament.

Indeed, Jirayr Sefilian, Founding Parliament’s leader — a public figure who is known for his leadership in the 1988-1994 conflict with Azerbaijan — was the first Armenian politician to publicly acknowledge the loss of territory. Sefilian used that information to call on Armenians to take up arms and return the land from Azerbaijan by force. And though Armenian officials first denied the territorial losses, by May, Sargsyan had confirmed Sefilian’s allegations, saying those three-square miles was a minor gain for Azerbaijanis which had cost them too many lives. A month later, Sefilian was arrested and charged with illegal possession of weapons as well as conspiracy to seize state buildings as part of a planned coup.  

23 July 2016: members of Sasna Tsrer stand outside the police compound in Erebuni, Yerevan. (с) Asatur Yesayants / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.These, then, were the conditions that surrounded the “Sasna Tsrer” siege in July 2016, when an armed group took a police station on the outskirts of Yerevan hostage. The group, which named itself after a medieval Armenian epic, demanded the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan as president, the establishment of a new government, as well as the release of political prisoners, including Sefilian. The siege lasted for two weeks, and though the gunmen eventually handed themselves over to the police, numerous protests in their defence were held in Yerevan.

During the siege, Armenian law enforcement arrested a number of opposition activists on charges of assisting the gunmen — and it was here that Garo Yegnukian was detained. While the majority of the detained have been released or bailed out, Yegnukian has remained in custody ever since.

Jirayr Sefilian, the popular Lebanese-born military commander turned Founding Parliament leader. Source: Serouj / Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0. All rights reserved. As stated above, of the 32 men on trial in connection to the July 2016 events, six are members of Founding Parliament. No evidence has been presented that the group itself played any role in the police precinct takeover. It has never advocated violence previously. Although some of its members ended up taking up arms, it never was a militant group per se.  Middle-aged men and women — an architect, academic, engineer, lawyer, physicist and doctor — were members, alongside war veterans such as Ara-Alexander “Alec” Yenikomshian, a former ASALA militant. (From the early 1970s through the late 1980s, ASALA terrorists killed a number of Turkish diplomats, copying the tactics of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, with which it shared training camps in Lebanon.)

The trial against the 32 men allegedly involved in the takeover opened roughly a year after the events. Divided into two groups, 14 of them, including Yegnukian, have been on trial since June 2017, while the trial against the other 18 opened a few days later. According to relatives and legal counsel, as well as contemporary interviews with the press, Yegnukian was surprised by the attack on the police station and volunteered to negotiate with the hostage-takers.

Pre-trial detention

Yegnukian’s case is bizarre: he has spent 18 months in pre-trial detention for reasons that remain unclear. Yegnukian, who is charged with assisting the taking of hostages and buildings, is being tried in the Avan and Nor Nork district court together with 13 gunmen. The criminal charge against Yegnukian is a mere 40 pages long within the 75,000 pages that comprise the 120 volumes of the collective prosecution.

Four wiretapped phone conversations are the only evidence against Yegnukian, according to his legal counsel Tigran Hayrapetyan. In an interview with me, Hayrapetyan says three of the conversations were among Yegnukian and his wife, and another call was with the gunmen inside the precinct. According to Hayrapetyan, nothing in these conversations proves Yegnukian’s part in the conspiracy — though they are being interpreted as evidence of support for the gunmen.

Yegnukian proposed that people should view the police station takeover as “a political action rather than an act of terrorism”, and “a rebellion, not a coup”

In an interview recorded and published on 18 July 2016, the second day of the siege, Yegnukian mentioned he knew that the gunmen were running out of food but wasn’t aware of the details. A day later, speaking to CivilNet TV, Yegnukian proposed that people should view the police station takeover as “a political action rather than an act of terrorism”, and “a rebellion, not a coup”. He said he didn’t know how many of the gunmen were members of Founding Parliament and assumed that the majority were not. Later that day, Yegnukian was arrested, his apartment and car were searched by the security services, and two mobile phones and five computers were seized.

Garo Yegnukian is interviewed outside the police station siege, 18 July 2016.

While Yegnukian is charged with assisting in the taking of hostages and buildings, the gunmen tried alongside him have not been charged with hostage-taking, but seizure of government buildings and illegal procurement of weapons. And yet, the judge dismissed Yegnukian’s lawyers’ motion to try Yegnukian separately. A motion to place him on bail was also dismissed, despite pleas on behalf of Yegnukian signed by dozens of public figures, including MPs, a former ombudsman and a number of local celebrities.

“The judge ruled that Garo can’t be released on bail because he can leave the country, interfere with witnesses or destroy the evidence,” says Hayrapetyan. “These are groundless claims. The witnesses’ testimonies were recorded in the court protocols, and we’re kept in the dark about the evidence. Given that his family lives in Armenia, it’s seems highly unlikely he’d leave the country.” In August, Hayrapetyan reported that the European Court of Human Rights gave a special status to the petition on Yegnukian’s case. The ECtHR haven’t examined the case yet.

Yegnukian believes that his support for Founding Parliament is only a pretence for the case against him, and that he is being punished for his activism. In July 2017, Garo Ghazarian, a co-chair of the Armenian Rights Watch Committee, sat in on one of Yegnukian’s court hearings. “I was left with impression that the judge was either inexperienced, which proved not to be the case, or some outside force was orchestrating his actions,” Ghazarian told me. “In this case, we can see punitive use of pretrial detention.”

The banner on Yerevan's Pak Shouka market denouncing Garo Yegnukian. Source: Hetq. A week after Yegnukian’s arrest, the pro-government newspaper Iravunk (The Law) published what it called an investigation that concluded Garo Yegnukian was among “foreign agents” that had orchestrated the Erebuni police station siege — another accusation that sought to paint Yegnukian as a spy. The piece, written by the paper’s editor (who in 2015 received a medal of gratitude from Sargsyan), was also published by major Russian-language newspapers in Armenia.

International reaction

To date, the US Department of State and international human rights groups have expressed little or no public concern about Yegnukian’s case. In February 2017, US Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills, speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce meeting in Yerevan, addressed the Sasna Tsrer trial. Mills said he was “concerned by the pre-trial detentions of several defendants who are suspected of giving non-violent support to the militants”, but did not mention any particular case.

“In a private conversation, an embassy official to Armenia explained the reluctance to comment on the case by saying that Yegnukian is a dual citizen of the US and Armenia,” says Ghazarian of Armenian Rights Watch. “It sets a bad precedent against seeking Armenian citizenship. French Armenians, Armenian Americans — who wants to be judged by the Armenian judiciary?”

“Politics and human rights should never mix, but they do mix in countries undergoing transition to a full democracy”

“By all means, he's a political prisoner,” Ghazarian says, referring to Garo Yegnukian. “Politics and human rights should never mix, but they do mix in countries undergoing transition to a full democracy.”

In a statement provided to me, the US Department of State wrote that “the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan is providing all possible consular assistance to Mr Yegnukian and we will continue to do so.” In a written response, the US Embassy in Armenia said it has been in contact with Armenian officials regarding the case and, and that it has made clear “the U.S. Government expects Armenian authorities to use pre-trial detention only as a last resort”. “We have also been pressing for a fair trial for Garo Yegnukian and the others in similar cases,” said the statement.

This video relays the 2015 incident, in which Jirayr Sefilian and a group of 30 cars were refused entry to Nagorno-Karabakh. Two dozen people were injured in the proceedings.

Diogo Pinto, director at European Friends of Armenia, a Brussels-based NGO, says he doesn’t consider Yegnukian a political prisoner, given that he was (in my opinion, allegedly) involved in apology of terrorism. However, Pinto acknowledged the excessive use of pre-trial detention in Yegnukian’s case. “I do believe that his case should have been trialed much faster,”  Pinto tells me. He stressed that the imperfections of the judiciary in Armenia is a major issue ahead of European states’ decisions whether to ratify the Armenia–EU Association Agreement signed in November 2017. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights wasn’t made available for an interview.

“The excessive use of pre-trial detention should be the last resort, and it should be well-justified,” says Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “In Garo’s case, the court’s excuses are not enough to justify that [...] It’s clear that Garo is a victim of the excessive use of pre-trial detention.”

The prisoner of Yerevan

During court hearings in October 2017, Yegnukian’s blood pressure would rise when he entered the courtroom. In November, he was hospitalised as a result. Ever since the incident, Judge Artush Gabrielyan won’t let Yegnukian step foot in a courtroom. On the days of his hearings, Garo is taken into the courthouse basement for 15-20 minutes, and then brought back to his cell in the National Security Service of Armenia building.

During a more recent hearing, Judge Gabrielyan said he ran into Yegnukian on the stairs and quipped that Yegnukian must have invented a trick to control his blood pressure. Under the Armenian legislation, any interaction between a judge and defendant outside of a courtroom is strictly prohibited. This small detail is interesting given that the Armenian judiciary is treating Yegnukian as a dangerous defendant. However, no evidence justifying this treatment has been made public.

It’s worth noting that the Sargsyan administration has a record of holding its opponents in pre-trial detention. In 2008, a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe committee even called for sanctions on Armenia for the arrests of those who protested the 2008 election results. As people involved in campaigning for the release of Yegnukian and others are currently reminding the Armenian public, the PACE elaborated the very definition of “political prisoner” to address the problem of “alleged political prisoners in Armenia and Azerbaijan” in 2001 — particularly on grounds where pre-trial detention is excessive or detention is imposed for reasons unconnected to the criminal case.

Meanwhile, the crackdown on the Founding Parliament continues. On 27 December, Armenia’s National Security officers arrested yet another group’s member, Vigen Nazaryan, on allegations of espionage. He was set free on the same day, after his apartment was searched, a mobile phone and tablet computer confiscated.

 

About the author

Grigor Atanesian is a former editor and deputy editor-in-chief of Esquire Russia. He has contributed to The Guardian, The Moscow Times, GQ, Forbes, Port and other publications, reporting from Kyiv's Maidan, rebel-held Donetsk, Serbia, Bosnia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Since 2017, he has studied investigative reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism via a Fulbright grant.

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