YEREVAN — The two most prominent members of the Armenian opposition remaining in prison have been set free in accordance with a general amnesty declared by authorities.
Sasun Mikaelian, a former parliament deputy, and Nikol Pashinian, editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, received a hero’s welcome from family members, friends, and supporters as they walked out of their respective prison facilities.
The two men played a major role in the March 1, 2008, postelection demonstrations in Yerevan that were forcibly broken up by security forces and left 10 people dead.
Like many other associates of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, both men went into hiding following the crackdown. Mikaelian was caught and arrested several days later, while Pashinian remained on the run until surrendering to law-enforcement bodies in July 2009.
”I will keep fighting,” Mikaelian told journalists outside a prison hospital in Yerevan where he has spent much of his time since March 2008. “Nothing has changed in my political views and attitudes.”
Mikaelian, who is also a prominent veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, insisted that he was “unjustly” sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of organizing what the Armenian authorities call “mass disturbances” and illegal arms possession. He was stripped of his parliament mandate because of that conviction.
Mikaelian, who lives in the central Armenian town of Hrazdan, was also unrepentant about his decision to back Ter-Petrosian in the February 2008 presidential election despite being affiliated with current President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party. He said at the same time that Sarkisian remains his “comrade-in-arms,” alluding to the president’s prominent role in the war against Azerbaijan.
Mikaelian also weighed in on a dialogue between the Sarkisian administration and Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK), which has been made possible by the amnesty. “If it’s really an honest dialogue, then I accept it,” he said.
Asked whether he would now campaign for Sarkisian’s removal from power, Mikaelian said, “The Congress will decide.”
Pashinian struck a more defiant note as he emerged from a high-security prison near the northwestern Armenian town of Artik later, chanting “Struggle, struggle to the end,” Ter-Petrosian’s signature political slogan. “I can’t wait to take part in the [HAK’s] May 31 rally,” he told journalists.
Pashinian went on to call for Sarkisian’s resignation and said the HAK “will do everything” to achieve it. He dismissed speculation that the HAK leadership is now ready to cut a deal with the Armenian president that would enable the latter to hold on to power.
The outspoken oppositionist claimed he was repeatedly offered such deals by the authorities while in prison. “Let nobody doubt that we will free Armenia from this kleptocracy and establish democracy,” he declared.
Pashinian, 35, was one of the most influential speakers at massive antigovernment rallies organized by Ter-Petrosian before and after the 2008 presidential ballot. He was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for allegedly organizing the deadly unrest in the capital. He denied the accusations as politically motivated.
The release of Pashinian, Mikaelian and a handful of other individuals regarded by the HAK as political prisoners has one of the main opposition preconditions for starting a dialogue with Sarkisian. The authorities are thought to have accepted this demand through the amnesty.
In a statement, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) co-rapporteurs for Armenia, John Prescott and Alex Fischer, have welcomed the general amnesty in Armenia. “The release of these persons and the renewed investigation in the 10 causalities that occurred during the March 2008 events remove the last obstacles for the normalisation of the political climate and open the door for the start of a constructive dialogue between the authorities and opposition. This is a very positive development for Armenia,” the co-rapporteurs stressed.
The U.S. Embassy has also welcomes the amnesty declaredin Armenia. “The United States believes that the rule of law and democratic institutions are fundamentally important to Armenia’s security and political and economic development. We remain committed to supporting the Government of Armenia in taking steps to strengthen due process, ensure freedom of assembly and expression, and support an open, vibrant, and prosperous society.” The Embassy press release stated.