Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Armenian activists detained in Akhaltsikhe

This was first published in Jan. 31, 2009 Armenian Reporter

Georgian-Armenians charge “intimidation” by Tbilisi
After arrests, calls for restraint, Armenia’s involvement
by Emil Sanamyan

, - Two Armenian community leaders from Georgia's Samtskhe-Javakheti province have been arrested on espionage, weapons, and conspiracy charges, the country's Interior Ministry said in a brief statement on January 23, Civil.ge and others reported.

The arrests come amid Georgia's continued standoff with Russia and the opposition's increasingly vocal calls on Mikheil Saakashvili to resign.

The arrested Armenians, Grigor Minasian and Sarkis Hakobjanian, are a youth club director and a local representative of Aznavour pour l'Arménie, respectively, in the town of Akhaltsikhe. Both men are members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun).

There has been no public reaction to the arrests from the ARF, which is a member of Armenia's governing coalition, or from Armenian government officials.

Sergei Minasian of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, an expert on Georgia, called the arrests "unprecedented."

"This is the first time that Georgia arrests ARF members and accuses them of espionage," Mr. Minasian told the Armenian Reporter. In effect "Georgia is raising the stakes, once again trying to dominate in relations with Armenia."

Latest in simmering tensions

After being arrested the two men were brought to Tbilisi, where a court granted prosecutors' petition for two months' pretrial detention. It was not immediately clear from the charges which country the two are accused of spying for.

Spokesperson for the Interior Ministry Shota Khizanishvili told Civil.ge on January 23 that "further statements on the matter will be made later." According to Armenian Public Radio, those statements were expected on January 26. No statements were made as of press time.

Interethnic relations in Georgia, particularly in Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti and Azerbaijani-populated Kvemo Kartli, have frequently been tense.

Following the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, many Georgians have suspected the country's other ethnic minorities - currently comprising about 15 percent of the population and living outside the Georgian mainstream - of harboring separatist intentions. Ethnic minority groups, in turn, charge Tbilisi with discrimination and seeking to encourage their emigration.

According to official statistics, there are about 100,000 ethnic Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti, over half its total population, with Armenians making up large majorities in the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda areas. Another 100,000 or more Armenians live in Tbilisi and elsewhere in Georgia.

Armenia, which relies on Georgia's transportation infrastructure, has long worked to smooth over tensions in the Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti province.

Warnings of consequences

In the absence of any Armenian government reaction, there have been vocal protests by individual parliament members and by nongovernmental organizations, all of which protested the arrests as "baseless" and "politically motivated."

Shirak Torosian is a parliament member from the governing Republican Party and leader of the Javakhk Compatriotic Union. He visited Akhhaltsikhe this week. On January 27 he argued the arrests were intended to "intimidate" the local population, Regnum news agency and others reported.

Mr. Torosian, who is known as proponent of Georgian-Armenian cooperation, warned that "Javakhk would not become another Nakhichevan," referring to the Azerbaijani-controlled region from which all ethnic Armenians were expelled in the 19th century, www.Bagin.info reported.

He instead identified two alternatives: either Javakheti's issues are addressed through Armenian-Georgian cooperation, or the current tensions could lead to an outright war. Mr. Torosian urged immediate involvement of the Armenian government.

Another parliament member, Larisa Alaverdian of the opposition Heritage Party, said the arrests were a reflection of democratic reversals in Georgia. "This is a radical step, a scare tactic against activists," Ms. Alaverdian said on January 23. "And it undermines Georgian statehood."

The arrests were intended to "cement" Tbilisi's control in Armenian-populated territories in the aftermath of Georgian reversals in South Ossetia and Abkhazia last August, Vahe Sargsian of the Yerevan-based Mitq analytical center (www.mitq.org) suggested on January 26.

Mr. Sargsian also linked the arrests to the recent flare-up in the long-running Armenian-Georgian dispute over the building of Surb Nshan church in Akhaltsikhe. Similar church disputes have been underway in Tbilisi (see stories in the Armenian Reporter for December 20).

Support for arrested and calls for restraint

According to Mr. Sargsian of Mitq, the Akhaltsikhe youth club was founded in 2006, with funding from ARF-affiliated Armenian Relief Society (ARS), while the Charles Aznavour Charitable Union was founded in 1990. The organization is named after the French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, whose parents are originally from Akhaltsikhe.

The ARF-affiliated Council of Armenian Public Organizations of Samtskhe-Javakheti issued a statement urging local Armenians to "remain calm and not to react to provocations."

And Yerkir Union, www.yerkir.org, which works to promote repatriation and strengthening Armenian communities in border areas, also called for restraint.

Speaking in Yerevan on January 26, Sevak Artsruni and Robert Tatoyan of Yerkir Union counseled against "extremist political statements," in the wake of the arrests, while also calling on Armenian organizations worldwide to work to encourage Georgia to respect its international obligations with respect to due process and minority rights.

The union also criticized the trial of Vahagn Chakhalian, leader of the Akhalkalaki-based United Javakhk Alliance, as politically motivated. Last July, Mr. Chakhalian, together with his father and brother, was imprisoned on weapons and conspiracy charges after his associate Gurgen Shirinian evaded arrest in an altercation that left a police officer dead. Mr. Shirinian's father and aunt were also arrested.

Reporting from Javakheti last summer hetq.am connected Chakhalian's arrest to his conflict with Akhalkalaki police chief Samvel Petrosian, which began at the time of local elections in 2006.

This week Mr. Chakhalian issued a statement carried by Regnum news agency on January 28, in which he called the fresh arrests a "new provocation by the Georgian government."

ARF: Javakhk activists not ARF members
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Thursday February 05, 2009

Washington, - Sarkis Hakobjanian and Grigor Minasian, arrested last month in Georgia's Armenian-populated Javakhk province, are not members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the party's Yerevan spokesperson Giro Manoyan told the Armenian Reporter this week.

"The ARF does not have organizational structures in [Samtskhe-Javakheti] and that means there are no ARF members there; neither of those arrested is an ARF member," said Mr. Manoyan.

This newspaper identified the two individuals arrested on espionage, weapons, and conspiracy charges as ARF members, citing published media reports.

Mr. Manoyan nevertheless criticized the arrests as politically motivated. He suggested they were an attempt to divert public attention away from the Georgian government's domestic problems - including the opposition's increasingly vocal calls for Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation - and an effort to "intimidate Javakhk circles seeking to defend their constitutional rights."

"Just before the August war [in South Ossetia], a similar scenario was played out in Javakhk, with shootings, police killings, and arrests [of Vahagn Chakhalian and his relatives and associates]," Mr. Manoyan recalled. "I believe the expectation then was to provoke a violent reaction, thus giving [the Georgian government] a pretext to crush the local people's will. It is very much possible that there will be further arrests in the region."

Mr. Saakahvili has repeatedly dismissed opposition calls for early elections. This week, he appointed Nika Gilauri as Georgia's fourth prime minister in fourteen months.

Mr. Gilauri, 33, has been one of the longest-serving cabinet officials since Mr. Saakashvili took office in 2004, having held energy and finance portfolios. Mr. Gilauri replaced Grigor Mgaloblishvili, 35, who cited health reasons for his departure. Opposition leaders alleged the health problems arose after Mr. Saakashvili personally assaulted his prime minister.

UPDATE: On February 5, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) cited a lawyer for the two arrested men as saying the charges stemmed with Mr. Minasian’s and Mr. Hakobjanian’s interaction with individuals believed to be Russian intelligence operatives.

UPDATE2: From March 14, 2009 Armenian Reporter

Armenian activists released in Georgia

WASHINGTON – Grigor Minasian and Sarkis Hakobjanian, two activists from Georgia’s Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti province, were released on March 6 after spending six weeks in prison, according to news media reports from Tbilisi and Yerevan.

The release came after a public outcry in Armenia over the arrests as well as visits by Georgia’s parliament speaker and foreign minister to Yerevan.

The two were arrested in the town of Akhaltsikhe on espionage, weapons, and conspiracy charges last January. A Tbilisi journalist familiar with the case told the Armenian Reporter, “a special procedural agreement was reached
between the state and these two men,” where each received a oneyear suspended sentence and was released upon paying a $1,200 fee.

Shortly after the arrest, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) cited the activists’ lawyer as saying that the arrested pled guilty to the espionage charge, which amounted to being paid for filling out “questionnaires” for an entity the Georgian government believed was a front for the Russian government; they denied
weapons and conspiracy charges.

Mr. Minasian told Armenia’s Public Radio on March 9 that as part of the plea bargain deal he and Mr. Hakobjanian would not speak to the press or otherwise reveal details of the case.

“Armenia and Georgia are two parts of my heart and my activity was not consciously targeted against their interests, but investigation has shown that I have committed a crime,” Mr. Minasian was quoted as saying. “I wish to express gratitude to all those in Armenia who sincerely want to help us.”

See more analysis by my colleague Tatul Hakobian in March 21, 2009 Reporter.

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