A. Zeynalyan: “Civil activists know their rights and police officers don’t”

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

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

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

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

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