By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
Radio Liberty, Czech Rep.
Dec 4 2006

An Armenian nationalist activist from Georgia's restive Javakheti region was deported from Armenia on Monday shortly after being controversially handed a suspended one-year prison sentence in a trial denounced as politically motivated by his supporters.

A court in Gyumri found Vahagn Chakhalian, a young leader of the United Javakhk organization campaigning for the Armenian-populated region's greater autonomy, guilty of illegally entering Armenia, dismissing his protestations of innocence. It backed prosecutors' claim that he crossed the Georgian-Armenian border without a valid Georgian passport.

The court ruled that Chakhalian must return to Yerevan, his temporary place of residence, and stay there until the verdict's formal entry into force. But witnesses said that as Chakhalian left Gyumri for the Armenian capital in a car he was apprehended by police and escorted to the Georgian border. His defense lawyer, Tigran Hayrapetian, told RFE/RL that local police officers showed him a written deportation order signed by the chief of Armenia's national Police Service, Lieutenant-General Hayk Harutiunian.

Chakhalian, 24, was arrested on October 11 just hours after he, his parents, brother and another United Javakhk activist arrived in Armenia in a car and were reportedly stopped and beaten up by unknown men outside Yerevan. The activist, Gurgen Shirinian, sustained severe injuries and required hospitalization.

Chakhalian was released from custody two weeks later amid an outcry from a number of Armenian non-governmental organizations and 16 members of Armenia's parliament. In a joint statement, the mostly opposition lawmakers accused the authorities in Yerevan of using the case to please the Georgian government which has been at odds with United Javakhk.

The violence and the ensued arrest also infuriated the radical group's supporters in Javakheti. Dozens of them marched to the Armenian border to demand his release.

"I repeat that I never illegally crossed the border of the Republic of Armenia," Chakhalian said in his concluding court remarks. His mother Gayane also testified at the trial, challenging the prosecutors to explain why they did not level the same accusations against herself and the three other persons that entered Armenia with Chakhalian. "Why is it that only one of us is guilty of breaking the law?" she said. "Why don't you try me as well?"

Hayrapetian, for his part, argued that they had no trouble passing through the Armenian border and customs checkpoints. Chakhalian's sympathizers link the case with United Javakhk's rejection of the official results of the October 5 local elections in Javakheti that gave victory to Georgia's governing National Movement Party. Alleging massive fraud, United Javakhk rallied hundreds of supporters in the regional town of Akhalkalaki. The demonstration turned violent, with the protesters seizing the local government building before being dispersed by police.