Samckhe-Javakheti (Javakhk) is an Armenian-populated region situated in southwestern Georgia bordering Armenia and Turkey to the south and southwest, respectively, and the Georgian province of Adchara (Ajaria) to the west. It occupies a strategic position athwart the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railroad currently under construction that purposely bypasses Armenia and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Of the three principal countries that lie south of the Caucasus Mountains—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—only Armenia qualifies as a nation-state based on the homogeneity of its population, which is over 95 percent ethnic Armenian. All of this is significant when considering the plight of activist Vahagn Chakhalyan and the Javakhk Armenians’ desire for an improved economic, political, and cultural environment within the framework of the Georgian state. Although one may make the case that the economic plight of the Armenians may be no worse that many others within Georgia, the lack of equitable political representation and the Georgian government’s determination to acculturate the Javakhk Armenians cannot be ignored. In a democracy, which Georgia claims to be and the United States repeatedly asserts, political representation and cultural preservation should not be denied to any of its citizens.
For obvious reasons, the Georgian government views any activism on the part of its minority populations as a prelude to more serious challenges to the spatial integrity of the state especially with respect to the Armenians of Javakhk. The loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russia is fresh in the minds of the Tbilisi leadership whenever they are confronted with any level of activism within Armenian Javakhk, Ajaria with its important port of Batumi on the Black Sea or its Azeri-occupied eastern border region. How realistic this concern may be is unimportant. The xenophobic nature of the Georgian leadership only fuels its paranoia especially with respect to the Javakhk Armenians.
This brief introduction is offered as background to understand the dire situation faced by Vahagn Chakhalyan, a Javakheti activist and leader of the United Javakhk Democratic Alliance. The Armenian Bar Association, presided over by Sonya Nersessian, has taken up the cause of Chakhalyan through its Armenian Rights Watch Committee.
That Chakhalyan is a political activist is not being denied. The fact that he has been denied the opportunity to defend his innocence is at issue. The incident which precipitated his arrest was the detonation of a bomb near the home of the chief of police in Akhalkalaki on July 17, 2008. The chief of police, Samvel Petrosyan, was appointed to his position by the Georgian authorities. As a result of this event, members of the United Javakhk Democratic Alliance were arrested including its leader, Chakhalyan .
From the moment the incident occurred, flagrant police and judicial misconduct has permeated every facet of his case from the improper gathering of evidence, to linking Chakhalyan to the incident without demonstrable proof, to changing the venue from Akhalkalaki (where the incident occurred) to Ahaltsikhe making it difficult for defense witnesses to appear, to poorly prepared transcripts of court proceedings, and the absence of a capable interpreter to enable Chakhalyan to effectively follow court proceedings which are in the Georgian language. In every respect, the court has denied him the opportunity to effectively refute the government charges to establish his innocence.
The district court’s irregularities were so egregious as to be reminiscent of England’s infamous Court of Star Chamber that was abolished in 1641. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in a press release dated May 7, 2009, stated that their “… organizations express…concern on the case of Mr. Vahagn Chakhalyan, sentenced to a 10-year prison term at the conclusion of a trial marred by irregularities, and who was subsequently brutally beaten in prison in Tbilisi [and that the additional charge against him ]…for violating public order…relate to protests that followed the October 2006 elections in Akhalkalaki…” two years earlier. The FIDH concludes “… that the procedure against Mr. Chakhalyan was carried out with blatant violations of national, regional and international legal standards on the right to a fair trial.”
Chakhalyan was arrested on July 21, 2008, four days after the incident occurred. His trial began on Nov. 10 and after a number of unexplained postponements were concluded on April 6, when he was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Yerkir Union, which has been monitoring the case from the outset, reported that Chakhalyan was found guilty on the basis of Paragraph 1 of Article 236 (acquisition and possession of firearms and ammunition), Article 2 (organizing a group action which grossly disrupts public order), and Paragraph 2(b) of Article 239 (hooliganism committed against a government representative…) of the Criminal Code of Georgia.
On July 27, 2009, over three months after being found guilty in the lower court (district court), the Court of Appeals of Georgia held its first hearing on Chakhalyan’s appeal. Observers from Yerkir Union who were present noted numerous violations of appellant Chakhalyan’s rights. The court, after a brief session during which Chakhalyan was not allowed to read a statement on his behalf, adjourned for the day and indicated a postponement of the hearing to Sept. 18, 2009, ostensibly for summer vacation—a further delay of two months.
Chakhalyan steadfastly maintains his innocence. He has categorically denied all charges brought against him and has enumerated the “flagrant violations” perpetrated by the court and police officials with respect to his case.
On July 31, according to Yerkir Union, Chakhalyan was moved from the Gidani Prison Number 8 in Tbilisi to the General Regime Colony Number 2 in Rustavi, some 20 miles southwest of the capital in a region heavily populated by ethnic Azeris. The Union further indicated that they believe “…that the Georgian authorities are planning a provocation against…Vahagn Chakhalyan.” On Aug. 17, Stepan Voskanyan, Chakhalyan’s attorney, was denied permission to meet with his client. On Aug. 21, Chakhalyan was transferred to the Strict Regime Colony Number 6, also located in Rustavi. This is a prison populated by the most hardened criminals in the Georgian penal system. Yerkir Union believes that by transferring him to this facility the Georgian authorities are deliberating subjecting Chakhalyan to greater personal danger.
Any attempt by the Georgian government to “chill” legitimate dissent or to deny the Javakhk Armenians the right to peacefully demonstrate or to petition the authorities for economic and political equality with their Georgian countrymen cannot be accepted. Neither can their right to maintain their religious, cultural, and educational institutions be denied.
Activists, by the very nature of what it is they do, tend to be idealistic and selfless. The Georgian government has resorted to Draconian methods to silence Chakhalyan . The Armenian government cannot ignore the situation. It must protest directly to Georgian President Mikheil Saaskivili—recently awarded Armenia’s “Order of Honor” by President Serge Sarkisian—concerning the police and judicial misconduct that has affected every facet of this case. Armenian advocacy groups in the diaspora should consider their role in protesting the gross injustice that is being visited upon Chakhalyan not as an option, but as a duty.
At the present moment, Chakhalyan’s case symbolizes the unfavorable conditions under which Armenians in Javakhk are required to live. If the Georgian government is successful in its attempt to silence Vahagn Chakhalyan, what kind of future can our brothers and sisters look forward to in their native Javakhk?