Defending theHuman Rightto a Fair Trial
November 9, 2017
Last August, Fair Trials had co-signed a letter addressed by international civil society coalition Civic Solidarity Platform to the Armenian authorities, calling them to stop harassment of criminal defence lawyers in cases related to domestic popular protests in July 2016. The lawyers in question have been providing legal defence for Sasna Tsrer members, an armed opposition group, who are facing trial having seized a police station in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, to voice their calls for reform. Since the start of the proceedings, their defence lawyers have reported state-sponsored harassment by the Armenian public authorities.
The right to access a lawyer is fundamental to a fair trial. This right starts with the presence of the lawyer right after the arrest and encompasses all the stages of the proceedings, including when a lawyer is presenting his defence arguments in court. Abusive restrictions on his ability to defend their client can be considered a violation of the right to a fair trial.
The Yerevan-based Legal Analysis and Development Center (LADC) has been monitoring the criminal proceedings in the Sasna Tsrer case from the very start. Maria Vardanyan from LADC tells us more about the case, as new trials have just started.
Yerevan, courtroom where the Sasna Tsrer trial is being held.
(Fair Trials) Can you briefly recount what happened during and after the protests?
(LADC) On July 17, 2016, members of the armed opposition group Sasna Tsrer seized the Armenian Police Patrol and Guard Service Regiment premises in Yerevan, calling for the release of opposition leader Jirair Sefilian and the resignation of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and asking people to join their protest. Public support for them developed into protests; some of them were put down by the police through the use of force, including stun grenades.
Almost one year later, on June 8 and July 3, 2017 Sasna Tsrer went on trial under two separate criminal cases (ԵԷԴ/0039/01/17 and ԵԷԴ/0050/01/17), involving respectively 14 and 18 members of the group. So far the proceedings have not reached the trial stage.
What was the situation in the court?
Defendants and their lawyers were subjected to an enormous number of sanctions, as well as to discriminatory security checks before entering the courtroom. Some of the lawyers refused to be examined by the bailiffs, mentioning that the procedure doesn’t stem from law. For instance, bailiffs were refusing bottles of water inside the court, although no regulation prohibited it.
Were the lawyers able to defend their clients in the courtroom?
The lawyers who refused to undergo security checks were not able to even enter the courtroom and those who were admitted in the room were not able to confidentially communicate with their clients and present motions to the Court. All their statements about the ill-treatment of the defendants and the deterioration of their health were ignored by the judge.
When Areg Kyureghyan, one of the defendants, tried to pass a note to his lawyer, the police claimed that he had no right to such confidential communication. So they took the note away from him. The note was later handed to the judge and was published on the court’s website.
Were any of the defendants or their lawyers mistreated?
Following the altercation between the lawyers and the police officers regarding the confidential note, defendants Mkhitar Avetisyan, Areg Kyureghyan, Arayik Khandoyan, and Gagik Yeghiazaryan were allegedly brought to the court’s basement and beaten by police officers.
More generally, both defendants and their lawyers were subjected to a number of sanctions for allegedly disrespecting the court. Some of the defendants were forbidden to enter the courtroom, whilst disciplinary sanctions were imposed on the lawyers who had refused to undergo the security checks.
With both defendants and lawyers being ousted from the courtroom, how could the trial move on?
It was obvious that the trial would not move further. Eventually, the court decided to close the previous cases and initiate new proceedings (ԵԷԴ/0090/01/17, ԵԷԴ/0091/01/17, and ԵԷԴ/0039/01/17), involving two more judges. In its decision the court also blamed the defendants and their lawyers for “unnecessary delays of the trials”. Nevertheless the lawyers now demand to try the three cases in a joint trial, as separate trials would lead to violation of more fair trial standards during the examination of evidence.
What does this case say about the Armenian criminal justice system?
The hearings on these cases brought to light many issues existing in our criminal justice system, and exposed the flaws of several justice actors, including the court, the prosecution, and the Chamber of Advocates. It is quite obvious that the defendants and their lawyers underwent serious violations of their rights and this may call into question the overall fairness of the Sasna Tsrer trial.
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