Protesters Under Attack in Armenia
International human rights groups have raised concerns about attacks on demonstrators in the Armenian capital Yerevan, following a summer of protests.
The latest incident happened on the evening of September 5, following a demonstration against President Serzh Sargsyan’s decision to enter the Moscow-led Customs Union.
Late in the evening, a group of men got out of a jeep and attacked Haykak Arshamyan, an analyst with the Yerevan Press Club, and Suren Saghatelyan, from the anti-corruption group Transparency International, who had attended the protest. Arshamyan’s nose was broken, and Saghatelyan sustained a head injury.
Prosecutors are yet to open a criminal case. Although it is not clear who the assailants were, video footage of uniformed police also beating protesters has appeared on the internet. Karen Andreasyan, Armenia’s official human rights ombudsman, sent a letter to the head of the city police to demand an explanation.
“From studying the videos widely shown in the media, there are questions about the legality of the actions of individual police officers in relation to some citizens,” the letter said.
Police chief Vladimir Gasparyan has not yet responded. But his deputy Valery Osipyan was in no mood to apologise, insisting that police had acted entirely within the law by detaining some demonstrators for a short period and then releasing them.
“If anything, they have been too moderate,” he said. “Only citizens who broke the law were detained, or those who did not obey the lawful demands made by the police. In future, the police will perhaps adopt more severe actions, and will follow the letter of the law.”
The United States embassy urged the government to find and punish those responsible for the attacks, as did international human rights organisations.
Andrey Sorokin, head of the Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued a statement two days after the attack, saying, “I am concerned about the reported violation of the right to peaceful assembly, harassment, and undue pressure on the demonstrators during street protests in Yerevan. Cases of direct intimidation and physical attacks against civic activists such as those perpetrated on September 5… are highly regrettable.”
Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at the international human rights group Amnesty International, said, “The Armenian authorities have committed to ensure that activists can carry out their work without interference, obstacles, discrimination or fear of retaliation. To honour this commitment means only one thing in this particular case, that the attack on the two activists is investigated impartially and effectively and the perpetrators are found and brought to justice.”
The September 5 demonstration was part of a wave of protests in Yerevan, which has rarely seen anything like it.
They began after July 25, when Mayor Taron Margaryan announced higher fares for public transport. Most travellers ignored the announcement and continued paying 100 drams (25 US cents), rather than the new fare of 150 drams. That forced Margaryan to cancel the increase five days later.
This victory inspired protesters to come out against other unpopular government decisions. On August 24, two separate protests began, one on Komitas Avenue demanding a halt to construction of a new building, and the other outside city hall, where protesters called for the resignation of senior public transport officials.
On Komitas Avenue, protesters blocked traffic by lying on the tarmac until police officers eventually dragged them away. Police detained 40 people, holding them for three hours.
That evening, three people were badly beaten, and another 15 demonstrators were slightly injured after clashes with police.
Prosecutors launched criminal proceedings against one of those at the Komitas Avenue demonstration, Argishti Kiviryan, a coordinator at news outlet Armenia Today. Police filed an action accusing him of using force against officers. Kiviryan was left concussed after he was beaten by police.
Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasyan said no police force anywhere in the world would have tolerated protesters blocking a street and refusing to move.
“In that sense, the police’s actions were entirely legal,” he said.
Anna Muradyan is a reporter for www.hetq.am.