Interview with Artak Zeynalyan, human rights defender, the Head of “Rule of Right” NGO.
Lately the police have brought claims against people apprehended during recent protests in Yerevan. You have made counterclaims and in number of cases they were successful. How many counterclaims have you brought, how many of them were upheld and how many dismissed?
The total number of legal actions against civil activists is around two hundred. They include participants of the “Komitas 5″ protest action; protests which took place from June 26, 2013 until November 1, 2013 in front of the Yerevan City Hall; September 4 protest in front of the Presidential Palace and December 2 protest action. I cannot tell the exact number of the cases, but the claims were brought not against all the apprehended persons. There were cases when a person was brought to a police station, but there were no legal action against him/her. After 3 hours of being kept in detention such persons were (or in some cases were not) charged with acts punishable under administrative law. However, we have cases when we brought a counter claim arguing that police actions against these persons were disproportionately intrusive. In four cases the police claims were dismissed; in one of them we hadn’t filed counterclaims, the other 3 cases had counterclaims and these counterclaims were upheld. That is to say, that not only the police request to impose an administrative penalty was dismissed, but also it was stated that the police interference with the rights of civil activists was not lawful.
Why before that there were no counter claims against the police or, perhaps, such cases occurred but they have been not known by public?
I took such an initiative for the first time in relation to protests of September 21, 2011, in particular in Levon Barseghyan case, when the lawfulness of police actions was disputed. If you happen to remember, on September 11 they made an attempt to organize a protest march. Demonstrators held posters and chanted “Independent Armenia”, “Self-governed Armenia” etc. as they marched toward Republic Square. The police brought them to police department and held there. We appealed to the court and won the case in 2013. And in subsequent cases we use the experience we gained working on the case of Levon Barseghyan. All this practice is based on our experience and it is not so rich, also because public is not aware of these facts. Another possible explanation for that is that persons who were brought to responsibility are not so known as, for instance, certain civil activists.
Taking into account the level of independence of our judicial system, what are the conditions for success in these cases? Do the police act in such careless and undisciplined way that afterwards they cannot ground their actions in court or, maybe, the court attitude has changed? Or, perhaps, there is another reason?
Well, maybe both mentioned reasons are true and probably our professionalism is another condition. The police are not savvy in these issues; they are not well trained and act on the basis of knowledge and experience gained yet in Soviet times. They cannot catch up with the developments in the human rights field; it is not comfortable for them to admit that there are limits of their authority. In the Police work people who couldn’t achieve success in any other fields. This is the reality. This is linked to the fact that they are not paid enough, which is in its turn is conditioned by the unreasonably large number of the police officers. It is much higher than needed for our state, than we can afford, but this number is kept in order to secure the existing regime, and the regime, being not formed by free and independent elections, has to be kept this way. In other words there is a whole chain of interdependent conditions.
Another reason is that we have administrative courts. This is a positive development, new type of courts was established and there was an attempt to cultivate it on completely new soil and not on the base of the heritage of the soviet court system. The judges here are younger; they got their education, knowledge and experience from German administrative courts. This is a positive thing that we have in Armenia. Of course, we don’t agree with each one from the mentioned 4 judicial rulings we won. They left room for maneuver, for example, participants of September 4 protest in front of the Presidential Palace still can be brought to responsibility. There is such hint in the court ruling. We have concerns that the courts’ independence, and even Administrative court’s independence, is not complete. And we come to this conclusion because of the shortcomings of those judicial acts.
And finally our community of lawyers, human rights defenders, is quite educated, experienced and accomplished. Therefore, due to the mentioned factors mutually influencing each other we got these positive results.
Can you name most common major violations that you encounter in your practice?
The violations are everywhere. First, when protesters are brought to responsibility, irrespective of the legal wrapper used, regardless under what cover it is done, it is always a penalty for the exercising the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The police do not comprehend that. They say: “I made a lawful request, which wasn’t followed”. The police do not understand that they have to justify the lawfulness of their orders, which cannot be lawful, because when a person makes a request, protests against something, it is very hard to find a lawful ground to put limitations on it.
When people revolt, protest, that means they are right. If you are a police officer, you should be able to find right words, to explain in a right way, because you are a brother to the protesters, you are their servant and not their lord or their lord’s servant. This is the essence of the freedom of peaceful assembly.
If the assembly is peaceful, this is already a definitive condition which closes all other possible speculations. If people are peaceful, then they express their will, they are not armed, they went out into the streets to show their protest which is important to them, and which is not necessarily important to everybody. It is enough that they believe that it is important, this is their own subjective point of view, their perception and it is enough. So, if they think that they have to raise their voice and attract people’s attention then maybe later everybody will join them in their struggle.
So, in every aspect the police interference in the exercising of this right is not lawful. And what about the ways they interfere? Is the due process kept here or not? Or is it secondary question for them. And the answer is that nothing is lawful here and due process is not followed.
We had a court hearing this Friday, on August 8 at 11.05 the police brought a person to the police department, at 11.40 they had already drawn up a protocol on committing an administrative offence, i.e. had finished everything they had to finish; 10 minutes later at 11.50 the protocol on administrative arrest had been drawn up and shortly after that the questioning was over. But the person was kept in the police far more than 3 hours, till 13.30. It is understandable that they kept this person just to punish him for his actions, and not because they wanted to follow their formal routine. The reality is that they isolate a person so as he/she couldn’t hamper their business, which is to give away Armenia. This is what they do, they give away our country.
And what can you say about the court’s attitude? Is it any different from these actions?
I wouldn’t say so. I have already said I have concerns that in “Komitas 5” cases and cases which followed the protest in front of the Presidential Palace the court will try to grant a judgment to the police. These concerns are based on the recent decisions, when I read them I realize that there is certain ambiguity left and there is a way for the court to fulfill the police’s demands.
In your opinion, could it serve as a precedent so as the police would reconsider their actions during peaceful protests?
This is much desirable but quite doubtful. We wish it would be so and press for that, we want the police to become our police, but there is very little likelihood that it would be so.
Do you believe that if an activist or a person fully knows his/her rights during peaceful protest this would keep him/her safe, or it doesn’t change much?
You know, our civil activists know their right very well, this knowledge is quite enough for them to exercise their rights and to some extend defend themselves. They know their rights, but do the police know them also? They don’t, this is them, police, who don’t know their rights. But in any case a person who knows his/her rights is much safer than those who don’t.
Interviewed by Mariam Sargsyan