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Armenia: Quarrel Over March Violence Continues

Opposition says evidence of police violence against protesters in Yerevan on March 1 being suppressed.
By Gegham Vardanian
Fierce debate is continuing in Armenia over the bloody events that took place in Yerevan following the disputed parliamentary elections in February.

The focus of attention is a parliamentary commission set up in June to investigate the violence. Although the main opposition is boycotting the commission saying it is too biased towards the government, it has become the main focus for agonised discussions about the events in the Armenian capital on March 1-2, in which at least ten people died after police broke up opposition demonstrations.

The opposition said the government was trying to break up peaceful protests, after what they say was a rigged election on February 19 that saw Serzh Sarkisian declared president of Armenia. The authorities say they were acting to prevent an attempt by the opposition, led by former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, to seize power.

More than 100 opposition activists were arrested after the night of violence and many are still in jail.

Last week, the monitoring commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, said it was still deeply concerned about the detentions.

A statement on October 2 read, “Serious questions remain regarding the nature of the charges brought against people arrested in relation to the events on 1 and 2 March, as well as regarding the court proceedings of several cases, including with regard to the principle of a fair trial. In addition, and contrary to assembly demands, 19 persons have been convicted on the basis of police testimony only.”

The parliamentary commission was due to present its findings this month, but has asked for another two months to finish its enquiries.

The commission contains representatives from the main pro-government parties as well as other smaller political groups outside parliament. But neither the main opposition grouping in parliament, the Heritage Party, nor the new opposition, Armenian National Congress alliance, are taking part in the commission.

The commission has set up a fact-finding group and is considering evidence from journalists and independent activists.

The opposition has said it may take part in the fact-finding group if it is given proper representation in the new body along with independent experts.

In recent sessions of the commission, there has been heated debate about footage shot by a cameraman from the A1+ company, which is generally critical of the government, that shows blood on a Yerevan street and what look like fragments of a jaw-bone and brains lying on the ground.

If confirmed to be human remains, they indicate that there was a further victim of the bloodshed, who was not officially listed among the casualties.

Shota Vardanian, an expert with the Armenian ministry of health, told the commission that the footage was a fabrication and that the body parts actually belonged to a piglet. He promised to provide written documents supporting his case, although he has not yet done so.

Human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian was not convinced, saying, “Shota Vardanian’s conclusions about the jaw-bone of a piglet reassured no one. This episode has confirmed my opinion that the video-footage needs to be assessed by an international expert.”

Viktoria Abrahamian, a correspondent with A1+, said that she was working in the studio on the night of March 1 and that three cameramen brought in terrible pictures of what they had filmed.

“They were young inexperienced cameramen,” she said. “They came back from their filming in a state of shock. They saw a lot of blood. They brought back the terrible pictures showing the jaw-bone and human brains. They said they saw the dead man. They felt sick.”

Abrahamian said she had no doubt that the pictures were genuine, having seen some of the street scenes herself.

“On March 1 I came into the studio and my trousers and shows were covered in blood,” she said. “I was wearing long trousers and they were stained by the blood as I walked along.”

The head of the commission, Samvel Nikoyan, has complained that not enough witnesses are making themselves available to the enquiry.

“There are both policemen and demonstrators who are eye-witnesses,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are no neutral eye-witnesses who have come forward and publicly given their point of view.”

Opposition activist Armen Khachatrian responded, “Someone has to be sure that if they go to the commission his words will be used properly. But up till now, the testimony of our witnesses in the courts and also the video materials we’ve supplied have had absolutely no effect.”

The opposition is angry about the trial next month of seven of its supporters, amongst them three members of parliament, who are facing charges of trying to seize power.

The man leading the investigation into what has been called “the case of the seven”, Vahagn Harutiunian, said that people with information and eyewitnesses were not coming forward to help his enquiries.

Anna Israelian, a journalist with the newspaper Aravot, has published a number of articles on the case and says it is a clear instance of a politically motivated prosecution.

“The enquiry has been conducted with the clear goal of collecting the maximum possible amount of material and trying to confirm the allegation that the opposition is exclusively responsible for what happened,” she said.

“The testimony of people who were hurt and who bore witness to the use of police violence has been made deliberately vague. For example, the testimony of one man about how he was on his way home amidst a crowd of demonstrators and was wounded ended up as follows: ‘well, I am not sure who wounded me, a policeman or a demonstrator’.

“There were definitely cases of throwing of stones; of barricades; of resistance – that’s a fact. But it is just not true that the opposition was trying to seize power.”

Human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian said that his office has received around 15 complaints that their evidence is being twisted by investigators.

“People say that they were beaten so as to give voluntary confessions or testimony about others,” said Harutiunian. “But when we ask the prosecutor’s office about this, we are told that these complaints have no basis in reality.”

PACE is insisting it wants to see an impartial investigation into what happened on March 1-2 in Yerevan. Thomas Hammarberg, PACE’s commissioner for human rights, said last month, “The situation with respect to the persons deprived of their liberty in connection with the 1-2 March events continues to be a source of serious concern.”

Gegham Vardanian is a correspondent with Internews in Yerevan.

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