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Jailed Politician Stands in Armenian Poll

Supporters say his by-election campaign will raise question of political prisoners in country.
By Gegham Vardanyan
For the first time in Armenia’s post-Soviet history, a candidate is standing for election to parliament from behind bars.



Voters will decide whether to choose Nikol Pashinyan, a prominent member of the opposition Armenian National Congress, ANC, and the editor of the Armenian Times, or one of his rivals in a by-election on January 10.



He is accused of “the use of force against representatives of the authorities” and “the organisation of mass disorders” in a court case that dates from giant protests that followed the 2008 presidential elections.



When police dispersed the opposition demonstrations, hundreds of people were injured and ten killed, including two police officers. Human rights groups say the 15 opposition leaders still locked up are political prisoners.



Since Pashinyan is unable to campaign personally, he is being represented by three colleagues who have the right to visit him in his detention centre for two hours a day to discuss tactics.



“Our candidate is happy about the progress of the electoral campaign. We are trying to involve Nikol in the process as well. For example, he is the author of part of the publicity materials and wrote special texts for the electoral leaflets,” Aramazd Ghalamkaryan, head of Pashinyan’s team, said.



Ghalamkaryan and other allies are trying to contact every one of the 50,000 voters in Yerevan’s 10th electoral district, knocking on doors to give out leaflets and a DVD.



“We are overcoming a very serious information blockade and propaganda. It is nothing for us to give out DVD disks in just one electoral region,” he said.



However, despite his bravado, the team has faced difficulties in getting its message to voters. Five activists were hospitalised after being beaten up by a group of men armed with crowbars on December 27.



Pashinyan’s allies blame agitators from rival, pro-government candidate Ara Simonyan of the National Unity Party for the assault, although a spokesman for Simonyan denied any involvement. The third candidate for the seat is Davit Hakobyan, leader of the Marxist Party, who is not campaigning. The main governing coalition party, the Republican Party, is not putting up a candidate.



Ghalamkaryan said he expected the voting process to be dishonest, and marred by ballot-stuffing as has been seen in previous Armenian elections.



“Will there be yet more falsification? Will the authorities start to bribe voters, exploit its administrative resources, or force our representatives to leave the polling stations? We are ready for this,” he said.



Pashinyan is one of the best known members of the Armenian opposition. After the February 2008 presidential elections, he helped lead nine days of protests that occupied central Yerevan. When the demonstrators were dispersed on the evening of March 1, the government declared a state of emergency and arrested 100 leaders of the opposition and other protesters.



Pashinyan hid from police for more than a year, continuing to write for the Armenian Times and his own website before finally giving himself up in July 2009. His trial began in October, with prosecutors demanding an eight-year jail sentence.



During his final speech to the court, Pashinyan said he was relying on the people of Armenia to assess whether he was guilty or not.



“I hope that on January 10, the voters of the 10th district in the centre of Yerevan will give me a verdict of acquittal,” he told the court.



Technically, a deputy in the Armenian parliament has immunity from prosecution, but it is not clear if a victory for Pashinyan would lead to his release. A deputy is not released if he is already under arrest when he becomes a candidate and, if he is convicted, the court could strip him of his mandate.



Armen Badalyan, an Armenian election expert, said that by making Pashinyan its candidate in the election, the ANC was trying to raise its profile in the country.



“It is also connected to the problem of political prisoners in Armenia, and with the attempt to bring this question to the Council of Europe once again,” he said.



The ANC says there are still 15 political prisoners in the country, with 14 of them having been imprisoned for their involvement in the protests, with just Pashinyan remaining on trial.



“This election and a possible victory will serve as a reason to raise once again the question of political prisoners in our country. Nikol Pashinyan is a person who, first of all, showed the police did not have the power to find him, then gave himself up voluntarily, was arrested and became a political prisoner,” said Ghalamkaryan.



Human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanyan, head of Armenia’s Helsinki Committee, said that any individual arrested for political activity counted as a political prisoner.



“Many people were arrested for the events of March 1, and tried on false testimony, supposedly for showing opposition to the police,” he said.



“You can consider them prisoners of conscience.”



The opposition says 160 people were detained for political reasons after the March 1 crackdown, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe referred to them as “imprisoned for political reasons” in January last year.



Gegham Vardanyan is a journalist from Internews Armenia.