Monday, 24 September

Prisoner of Conscience

“I think they’ll arrest me soon. I have founded a Helsinki group for the protection of human rights with my friends. Helsinki-type groups are against the law in the USSR, and the members of these groups are in prison camps. When I founded this group I had two goals - to take the first step on the path toward freedom in my country - I achieved this goal. Second - to achieve the reunification of Nagorno Karabakh, Nakhichevan, Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalak with Armenia. This has not been achieved. I declare that any accusation brought against me will be false and I will not accept it…” Edward Harutiunyan wrote this two weeks before he was arrested.

Edward Harutiunyan was born in 1926 in the village of Talish in the Martakert region of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Province. He graduated from the Baku Institute of Journalism and was assigned to work in Yerevan. In 1961 he defended his thesis and became a Candidate of Economic Science [PhD in Economics]. He was a section chief at the Yerevan Research Institute on Planning and Standardization. In 1967 he was dismissed on the grounds of “mental illness”.

In 1972, attempting to protect his rights, he went to the British Embassy in Moscow and asked for help. For this, the KGB transferred him to a mental hospital and kept there for 22 days. He was released only after his mother publicly promised to commit self-immolation on Red Square next to Lenin’s mausoleum.

In 1976 Edward Harutiunyan founded the Armenian Helsinki Group in Yerevan. There were three people in the group - Harutiunyan, Robert Nazaryan and Shahen Harutiunyan; Hambardzum Khlghatyan joined them later on. On December 28, 1978 the apartments of the four members of the group were searched and all four were arrested. Edward Harutiunyan and Khlghatyan were released from custody after promising in writing not to leave the city.

Shahen Harutiunyan was sentenced to three years in prison, and Robert Nazaryan to five. Hambardzum Khlghatyn got permission to leave the country. Edward Harutiunyan’s photographs were posted at the airport so he would be arrested if he tried to leave the city. And soon he was arrested in Moscow, as “thief-recidivist”. On March 10, 1980 The Supreme Court of the Armenian SSR sentenced Edward Harutiunyan to two years and six months in prison in accordance with Article 206-I of the Criminal Code. When he was released he resumed his human-rights work and was arrested again a few months later.

On June 6, 1983, the trial of Edward Harutiunyan, Raphael Ohanyan and Sirvard Avagyan for violating Article 206-I of the Criminal code of the Armenian SSR began.

The verdict against Edward Harutiunyan said, in part:

“Having examined the data obtained during the investigation and trial, the panel of judges finds the following to be well-founded:

Defendant Edward Harutiunyan, who has since 1976 has willfully presented himself as the chairman of the non-existent so-called Armenian Helsinki Group, has been engaged in the publication of works containing obvious libel against the Soviet state and social order, and has also been collecting such materials from various persons with the goal of disseminating them, for which in March 1980 he was sentenced to two years and six months imprisonment by the panel of criminal judges of the Supreme Court of the Armenian SSR.

“Even after he was released from prison he made no attempt to engage in socially useful work, and rather than reforming continued the same criminal activity, this time with the other two defendants in this case - Raphael Ohanyan and Sirvard Avagyan.

“In typewritten texts composed in two copies each and entitled ‘Petition to the Catholicos of All Armenians, Vazgen the First’ and ‘The appeal of the Armenian Church to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR’ defendant Harutiunyan presented himself as a member of the Soviet Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and asked Vazgen I to call upon ‘the Soviet government to release all Armenian political prisoners from prisons and mental hospitals’.

“Interpreting the Soviet constitution in a perverted way, defendant Harutiunyan alleged in writing that ‘the Soviet people are deprived of basic rights’, ‘remain constantly in a state of fear and horror of the Soviet government’, that so-called ‘political prisoners’ are being prosecuted for their beliefs. He described in a perverted manner the conditions in which prisoners are kept. And then, without any remorse, he rebuked the Soviet people and the Christian Church for their ‘horror’ of the KGB organs. Continuing the slander against the Soviet government, defendant Harutiunyan wrote the following, word for word: ‘We don’t realize that our government fears us more than we fear it, for it is the most cowardly government of all the governments that exist in the world’, and ‘our government seizes everything that falls into its hands, delivers a blow at the moment when its victim is powerless’. Then he addressed Vazgen I demanding that he render assistance to the families of ‘political prisoners’ in proportions that will shock the Soviet government.

“In 1982 defendant Harutiunyan composed a 71 page untitled manuscript and, in order to disseminate part of it, made four copies. This text also contains gossip against the Soviet state and social order. Showing blunt enmity toward the Soviet social system, he attempted to discredit the domestic and foreign policy of the Soviet state, writing that ‘the Soviet state is on the verge of economic collapse; the living standards of the Soviet people are declining more and more, for the Soviet government doesn’t care about the interests of its people but only lavishes promises and never keeps them’. In the same text he wrote that ‘people understand all this but they keep silent out of fear of imprisonment’.

“Further, continuing to discredit the Soviet people he wrote, ‘Soviet people do not consider misappropriation of public property to be theft and they steal whatever is possible to steal’, ‘under socialism, alcoholism is not regarded as evil because Soviet people, deprived of all political, economic and social rights, try to drink themselves into oblivion,’ Defendant Harutiunyan also disseminated enmity and gossip about the foreign policy of the Soviet state stating, ‘during the World War II the USSR annexed territories, in particular, Latvian, Estonian, Moldavian’, ‘occupied Czechoslovakia, Laos, Cambodia; suppressed uprisings in Hungary and Poland’.

‘Defendant Harutiunyan put forth baseless accusations of ‘national discrimination’ against the Soviet state, alleging, ‘the Soviet government dissolved the autonomous republics of Kalmykia, Checheno-Ingushetia, as well as a number of other autonomous socialist republics, expelled their native peoples and settled the territories with Russian villagers’.

“Defendant Harutiunyan crowned his libel and slander by stating that people who are struggling for justice are being persecuted by [Communist] party organs. Harutiunyan’s guilt is grounded in the study of the material evidence, the results of expert examinations of handwriting, and other evidence obtained. Thereby, the panel of judges considers it proven that defendants E. Harutiunyan, R. Ohanyan and S. Avagyan wrote and disseminated appeals, petitions, manuscripts, typewritten texts and other documents libeling and rebuking the Soviet Union. In determining the punishment, the panel of judges takes into consideration the public danger of the crime, the personalities of the criminals, and the fact that all three have previous convictions and are characterized exclusively negatively. The Panel of Judges on criminal cases of the Supreme Court of the USSR finds defendant Edward Bagrati Harutiunyan guilty of violating Article 206-I of the Criminal Code of the Armenian SSR and sentences him to three years imprisonment in a strict-regime correctional labor camp.”

Edward Harutiunyan’s journey began in the leading criminal camps of the country. The unbearable conditions of the transportation under guard and the isolation cells completely undermined his health. He developed cancer. While still in the KGB jail in Armenia, he informed the Ministry of Interior of the USSR, “Those who deport me to Siberia when I am so seriously ill will be making themselves professional killers”. The doctors already knew that Edward was condemned to death. Surgery had no effect. It was too late; the cancer had spread throughout his body. According to the law, the hospital doctors were obliged to intercede for his release from custody. But they did the opposite. They sent the dying Harutiunyan to the camp, as punishment for having demanded to be allowed to appeal to the UN for help. When it became clear that he would die in a matter of days, he was freed. On December 5, 1984, twelve days after being freed, Edward Harutiunyan, aged 58, died in Yerevan. He was buried according to his will in the village of Talish. The people of France public donated a tombstone with the inscription “From friends from abroad”. But even his grave was vandalized by the government. Two weeks later they removed the tombstone, destroyed it and erased the word “long-suffering” from the monument. The only person who never abandoned Edward was his sister Silva. Here are some excerpts from his letters to her:

“Dear Silva, I feel very bad, ask the doctor what to do so I don’t die here, so I come home and die in my grandfather’s house in Talish…”

“My precious Silva, my sister, take me away from here. Taking my body will cost thousands. Don’t say anything to our family about this… I know why the commission members don’t want to let me go -- so that there will be no chance that I recover… I’m in severe pain; my stomach, my bones hurt… I don’t even want to talk…”

“Hello dear Silva. I am writing after an injection of painkillers. I can only “work” for 45 minutes under its effects, because that’s as long as my brain functions -- as drug addicts say, I’m stoned.”

These letters were written in 1984, one or two months before his death. And this is from the last letter he wrote to the government:

“To the Supreme Soviet of the USSR
… I have never been and will never be a traitor. I have never been and will never be an enemy of the people. I love my homeland. I have worked not only not ‘for Reagan’ but not for anybody… Yes, I am the founder and a member of the Armenian Helsinki Group. Yes, I am one of those who have fought for human rights in the USSR. I only defend human rights in my country. And nobody has the right to insult me… September 12, 1984”.

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