<h2 class="title">The Georgian State vs. Vahagn Chakhalyan: They Wish to Silence an Armenian Voice</h2> [ 2009/06/08 | 19:08 ] Feature Stories court important politics
Kristine Aghalaryan An interview with Patrick Arapian, member of the Paris Bar Association
Mr. Arapian, why do you wish to assume the defense of Vahagn Chakhalyan, head of the United Javakhk Democratic Alliance? Arenít there capable lawyers from Armenia or Georgian attorneys? What will be your role in the matter?
Iíve been handling the defense of minorities in the Caucasus for twenty years. Itís only natural that I also defend Vahagn Chakhalyan. This is the main reason. Iíve defended Kurdish, Yezidi and Georgian opposition activists and the interests of Armenian opposition figures. I also performed this activity up until the time of perestroika in the former Soviet Union since I was well familiar with the region.
The defense of such rights is a relatively new field for Armenian attorneys and it bears Soviet era influence. However, I am hopeful that with Armenian lawyers at our side it will be a good experience for them and that we will execute a successful defense. We are collaborating with Ruben Sahakyan, President of the RoA Chamber of Advocates. It will help to include young lawyers in such cases; so that they too become skilled in the defense of political rights.
Regarding Georgia, during the past 10-15, thereís been such treatment of national minorities exhibited that many have been forced to flee the country. For example, there used to be 500,000 Armenians in Georgia; today there are 300,000. Yezidis are also disappearing in Georgia as a national minority.
In this context, it was very complicated for Georgian lawyers to maintain their juridical independence and to assume the defense in such cases.
I have a dual role in this case. The first role, as a traditional lawyer, is to expose and condemn the negative treatment of national minorities in Georgia. The second role is to attempt to defend the rights of the Armenian minority in Georgia from the outside.
You live and work in France. In practical terms, how will you carry out the dense of Vahagn Chakhalyan?
This is not an exceptional case. There are many cases in the world when individuals are tried for political reasons and lawyers from other countries come to defend them. I have experience in mediating in political processes and have received a corresponding education. My only weak point in this case is that I am Armenian. At the same time, since I know the region well, I have an advantage in this judicial proceeding. The fact that the discrimination faced by national minorities in Georgia is condemned in Europe is a first victory. For diaspora Armenians who have no information about the plight of Armenians in Javakhk and Akhalkalak, this is already a victory of sorts. As a result of this, the fact that international organizations, for example the International Federation of Human Rights, have condemned the actions of the Georgian authorities is once again a victory.
Some in Javakhk believe that Vahagn Chakhalyan is being persecuted for being a political activist; others as simply a settling of scores for certain actions he did in the past. What is your view?
I am convinced that this is essentially a political affair. I was able to see how Armenians live in Akhalkalak. I heard from numerous witnesses as to what had happened. I met and spoke with the family of the murdered policeman, Armen Grigoryan. The family has been cast adrift and forlorn after the loss. The Georgian authorities have refused to shed any light on the incident, even to the level where the possibility exists to conclude that he committed suicide. I wasnít able to meet with the family of the other slain policeman, Artur Berujanyan. However, I know that the family presented a serious complaint to the local police. They do not agree with the version of the incident put forth by the police. We really are dealing with a political case here. The abuses of the police in the matter are quite evident. The most terrible aspect of the case is that these were Armenian policemen who were carrying out repressive measures against fellow Armenians. The same police have now arrested Vahagnís brother and his brotherís friends. Itís a traditional method; terrorize the Armenian community by waging an assault and by targeting the youth. From this viewpoint I do not understand why in Armenia they cannot more severely condemn the actions of an Armenian policeman.
In other words, what you are saying is that the Armenian side has adopted a more conciliatory stance regarding the matter?
The reality is that in Armenia there is the perception that they are treating the Javakhk Armenians as they do their compatriots; in the way that the Armenians of the RoA assisted their brothers in Karabakh. The Armenia authorities however are obliged to cooperate with the Georgians due to the importance of Georgia for Armenian trade and transportation.
Mr. Arabian, itís been about eight months this you applied to the Georgian Ministry of Justice but they are refusing your requests to officially register as Vahagn Chakhalyanís defense attorney. What do you plan to do if your appeal is also rejected?
As a lawyer, my struggle is a legal one. The legal process has many stages. The first is an investigative stage, the second, the Court of First Instance and the third is the Appeals Court. The Cassation Court follows and then the case is sent to the European Court of Human Rights. The presence of Armenians in Javakhk is much older than this process. We must never forget that a man has wound up in prison and that one family is being repressed.
Did the protest demonstration outside the Georgian Embassy in Paris yield any results?
In my view it was a great success. For the first time in the diaspora, Armenians decided to say ďnoĒ to the Georgian authorities. It was definitely a political protest. We have never seen Georgians protesting outside an Armenian Embassy. Georgians residing in Armenia have never had any problems while Armenians in Georgia faced problems of a national nature. One need only look at the problem of Armenian churches. There is not one group of Armenians that isnít being terrorized or repressed. What is being threatened in Georgia is the Armenian national identity. For some, the protest was a ray of hope, for others, a political protest of the first order.
Have you ever been refused the right to defend a certain individual?
This is the first such case of an international lawyer going to Georgia and being refused the right to legally defend a client. As a rule, opposition activists in Georgia flee the country and their rights are defended outside.
What levers can be pulled in order to influence the Georgian authorities? What measures will you be taking?
This is a very important issue for me. It is one thing when a lawyer steps forward to defend an individualís rights. It is his work and profession. Clearly, in this case, we are dealing with the issue involving Armenian-Georgian relations. It must be defined on the level of political officials and not by attorneys. The Georgians must be assured of the position of Armenians in Armenia. They donít want to face a situation as they did with the Abkhaz and Ossetian people. This is one of the reasons why there is repression against the Armenian community as a national minority. The Armenian side must make the Georgians understand that they cannot oppress the Armenian community and that the two peoples must live side by side in Georgia in peace and prosperity.
In your view, what are the most glaring violations in the Chakhalyan case that can substantiate the political persecutions carried out by the Georgian authorities and that can lead to results in the European Court?
These include the absence of any investigation and ballistic testing of the guns, not hearing witness testimony and assaults on the rights of the defense. These are the three pivotal arguments of the defense.
To date, what have been the shortcomings of the defense team?
The defense was organized but the team wasnít aware of such political repression. The defense team didnít explore the issue in the full context of minority rights in Georgia. Today, the defense is more united in that sense.
Recently, they beat Vahagn but he refused to name names. Why?
Iíve been a lawyer for more than twenty-five years. I make the prison rounds on a weekly basis. Thereís a particular reality within prison walls. If a prisoner condemns what happens to him, it is very important and is seen as a sign of bravery and defiance. Prison is itself a form of repression. Anyone winding up in prison would do well not to make enemies.
According to the Georgian Human Rights Ombudsman Sozar Subari, Vahagn Chakhalyan was facing a thirty year sentence for the charges levied against him but he received a ten year sentence. Is Subari exaggerating the point or can other interpretations be given?
What is unusual in this Georgian process is that we are faced with a constantly changing set of charges. At one point the charge is arms possession and then they present political charges. In dealing with the Georgian authorities we are faced with a scenario in which they want to silence the Armenian voice within the span of ten years. From the start, Georgiaís Ombudsman has been supporting us because the violations are so glaring he had no other choice but to condemn them. In the context of Georgian reality, I would say that Subari has exhibited courage.
Knowing the situation in Javakhk and being appraised of the case, I am convinced that Vahagn is totally innocent. The only charge against him to which I agree is the fact that he is Armenian.
How do you see the case winding up? From a legal point of view is there a realistic basis on which to apply to the European Court of Human Rights and win the case there?
The slogan of the opposition in Armenia, ďstruggle, struggle until the endĒ, is well-known in Europe. I would adopt that slogan in this matter since the struggle of Armenians in Georgia will not end today. It is a long-term struggle.
Of course there is every possibility to win the case in the European Court. Emphasis must be placed on all the violations that have been committed during the judicial process.
The Georgian State vs. Vahagn Chakhalyan
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