Thursday, 20 September

There’s No Country Or Court That Has The Right To Judge Our Struggle

In 1985 Monte was inFrance.

The police didn't know this. Levon Minasian, one of the leaders of the “Armenian National Movement” had been arrested. Monte had come toFranceto testify on his behalf. Since Monte was barred from enteringFrancehis friends negotiated a secret deposition. The investigative magistrage was taken hostage in order for Monte to submit his testimony without reveling his location. Monte testified but his entry intoFrancewas thus revealed.

“On Thursday, November 28, police from the French Counter-Intelligence Agency (DST) arrested Monte Melkonian, the head of the A.S.A.L.A.-Revolutionary Movement. Also arrested was Benjamin Keshishian, a staffer at the Hay Baykar newspaper, who was meeting Melkonian for a press interview. That same evening a young French-Armenian woman, Zepyur Kasbarian, was also taken into custody. The French police stated that a gun belonging to Melkonian, some electronic equipment, a photo of the Turkish ambassador, and a list of Turkish ships anchored in Marseille harbor were all found in her apartment. Zepyur denied any prior knowledge of these items as well as knowing Monte's true identity. All three were charged with “criminal conspiracy”.

Hay Baykar, December 20, 1985

At the time, local Armenian activists were subjected to increased police surveillance. Monte had found himself on the streets of Pariswith no money and no place to stay. Zepyur Kasbarian, a student and Armenian language teacher, took him in.

- Zepyur, what were you accused of?

- As a conspirator since they found all those items of Monte's in my apartment.

- How did Monte act during the trial?

- Always in good spirits. He spoke at length. I wasn't the one on trial. It was Monte they were after. My name was mentioned only in passing.

- How long were you in jail?

- Exactly one year. It's now been ten years since my release. But I've suffered more during these past ten years than during the one I spent in jail. I never expected to be barred from freely moving about inParisall that time. I'm under virtual house arrest. I haven't seen Monte since then, but I'm glad to have helped out such a good and great man. I'm proud to have done what I did – no regrets. Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to ask him how the police knew he was staying at my place.

- In other words, were the police tipped-off to the fact he was there?

- Of course they knew. How else did they take him into custody at 11 A.M? Later that day they came to my apartment and showed me a photo of Monte from one of the newspapers. They asked if I knew who the person was and I said, yes, he's Monte Melkonian. Then they showed me a photo of Monte while staying at my apartment and I said, No, I don't know this person. Neither did I know who my interrogator was nor why he was asking all these questions.

Much later, in his book Self-Criticism , Monte writes, “There are several reasons why they were able to capture me. First, they knew my whereabouts because I testified. It occurred at a time when I didn't have many resources at my disposal and was vulnerable. I also made the huge blunder of using the telephone carelessly. In the end it was this crucial error in judgment that did me in.”

Monte spent a total of three days at Zepyur's apartment and on the fourth he was taken into custody while in the Zever Cafe. Zepyur's husband, Varoujan Mehrap, took this writer to the cafe where he met Fake Claude, a waiter there for over forty years, who was an eyewitness to Monte's arrest and vividly remembers that day:

“It happened on a Friday morning at 10:30. They were both drinking coffee. We later learned that one was a terrorist, the other a journalist. I don't know if someone betrayed them but the police knew exactly where to find them. There were fifteen undercover agents scattered around the place, reading, drinking, etc. Suddenly, they all pounced on Monte. They drew their guns and handcuffed the guy and took him away. Afterwards, the police showed us some I.D. and told us all was OK.”- Said Fake Claude.

- Did they offer any resistance?

- No. They were jumped by fifteen police. They had no chance.

- Has anything similar happened here?

- No, and I've worked here since 1958.

- What's your opinion of the guy they arrested?

- I don't know the man.

- Do you know he's considered a national hero in Armenia?

- Really? What a surprise. Good for him. He did me no harm.

- Don't you find it strange that the French police arrested someone who's considered a national hero in another country?

- Nowadays so much happens that I'm not really surprised.

The 14th Tribunal of the Paris Court of Justice sentenced Monte Melkonian to six years imprisonment and Zepyur Kasbarian to two years.

After the trial, in 1986, Monte wrote the following letter addressed to the Armenian community:

“ I have not petitioned the court for a review of the harsh sentence given to me. I haven't pursued such a course of action because there's no country or court that has the right to judge our struggle nor those who wage it. Secondly, I've tasted the farce that passes as “French justice”. Thirdly, a review of my case will not change anything. My sentencing resulted from a political decision. We will resolve the issues we face elsewhere and not in the halls of a judicial system that seems fit to censure us.”

Hay Baykar, 1986

Monte's French Defense Counsel consisted of two lawyers – Henri Leclerc and Francoise Segh.

In 1997 Henri Leclerc was the President of France's Human Rights Defense League. Below are excerpts of an interview from 1997.

“Monte Melkonian was able to totally defend his national-patriotic position. He explained the reasons why he fought. His guiding principle in the struggle was top avoid civilian casualities at all costs. I'll always remember how he stressed this point during the trial and how he comported himself in a dignified manner”, said Henri Leclerc.

- But weren't you defending a terrorist...?

- My defense was based on the opinion that he was not a terrorist but someone involved in a struggle. As an activist, his primary focus was how to advance the struggle and not on how to plan senstaional acts that would result in innocent deaths. This position of his should have been lauded. In any event, at the core of my defense was the argument that Monte wasn't a terrorist (as currently defined).

- Given his character, wasn't he more peaceful than...?

- Yes, in my article I refer to him as a peace-loving terrorist.

- What effect did Monte's speech have during the trial?

- The efect was that there was no doubt that we were dealing with a unique kind of terrorist. It wasn't the usual speech of your average terrorist. I've defended a number of Armenians who have been entangled in unjustifiable acts. Monte was different. The impression he conveyed to the court was of a strong-willed and brave man. He was brave not only due to the struggle he waged on behalf of his people but also because he fought against all those whose foolish actions clouded the correct perception of Armenia's freedom. I don't particularly take a hard line regarding those who resort to unacceptable means and weapons in their struggle. But I respect those who have the courage to refuse to employ those methods. Monte was one of those people.

- You say that Monte was a peace-loving terrorist. When did you start to feel that, in prison?

- Yes, when we had our conversations there. We had a problem, though. His French was poor and so was my English. In the end, we overcame this.

- Do you think Monte benefitted from his time in jail?

- Usually people in prison wind-up viewing their life from afar and have a chance to evaluate their past actions. This is especially the case for active people like Monte who fill their time in prison with much self-analysis. I believe this is what happened in Monte's case.

- When and how did you hear about his death?

- I remember it well. At the time I was in a cafe in the 18 th district ofParis. An Armenian activist who had been in jail and whom I had defended in another matter came to see me there. When he asked, “Do you know Monte Melkonian has been killed?”, I felt sad.

- Do you know he's a national hero in Armenia?

- Yes, I've heard this many times.

- Don't you think this fact proves your description of him as a peace-loving terrorist?

- He was a man who deeply loved his country and a brave and wise warrior. I find it only natural that he assumed such responsibilities afterArmenia's independence. Given the many difficulties thatArmeniahas overcome (that I'm aware of), such a man should be a hero.

Below are excerpts of an interview with Monte's other lawyer, François Ser.

François Ser – Monte bore the internal political responsibility of a movement engaged in ruthless actions against Turkish targets, mostly outside France. He was a special case. I've had dealings with lesser combattants during other trials. These were peoplewho merely carried out certain acts. Monte was able to ideologically analyze the struggle and his responsibility in it. Despite his young age I felt I was dealing with someone with a deep political understanding of his people's history, their liberation movement and the various forms of armed struggle. This made him stand apart.

- Thus you won't be surprised to learn that someone like him has become a national hero?

It doesn't surprise me due to certain political and historical reasons. Today, Armenians have their lands and people like Melkonian can be included in that land's history. He went to prison a young man and was still young when he got out. But there's no doubt he matured while inside. He read voraciously, put his thoughts down in writing and sharpened his ideological faculties. He was a man who gave meaning to his life and stayed true to his principles till the very end. He left a lasting impression. 

“From November 28, 1985 till February 5, 1989 I was imprisoned by the French authorities. The conditions in prison were pretty bad. Not only were the food, sanitary and medical conditions poor, especially in Fresnes prison, but on top of this the government devised numerous other repressive measures. I spent two months in an isolation cell, my correspondence with the outside was closely monitored and I was subjected to other arbitrary punishments. Only one person outside my family was allowed to visit. My cell was searched practically daily and turned upside-down. During one stretch they confiscated my writings. They would often conduct humiliating body searches. I couldn't receive newspapers although French law expressly guaranteed my right to do so. Some of the guards took special pleasure in mistreating me and neglected my health needs. Prison authorities would use the flimsiest of pretexts to place me in a cold and dirty cell, often without any toilet facilities for extended periods.”

Excerpted from Monte Melkonian's, Self-Criticism, 1990

While in prison Monte wrote to his brother Markar:

“Every person should spend at least on month in jail. Every judge should spend one year in prison to better understand the consequences of his actions.”

In February 1989 he was released from prison and deported to Yemen.

In 1990 Monte Melkonian arrived in Armenia.

Interviews conducted June 1997, Paris


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