Armenia's Bloody Saturday

Violence stuns the country, denting its image further after a controversial election.

Armenia's Bloody Saturday

Violence stuns the country, denting its image further after a controversial election.

Wednesday, 5 March, 2008
Armenia is counting the cost of what is already being called “Bloody Saturday,” after several people were killed in running battles between police and opposition demonstrators in the capital Yerevan.

After a day of violence on March 1 which stunned this normally peaceful city, outgoing president Robert Kocharian declared a state of emergency in Yerevan.

The protesters were calling for the cancellation of the February 19 election in which Kocharian’s ally and prime minister Serzh Sarkisian was voted in as president, when the security forces moved in with force to break up the demonstration.

The opposition says its supporters were engaged in lawful protests and were subjected to an unprovoked attack, despite calls from the international community for a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.

The authorities say they were forced to act after receiving information that weapons had been distributed among the demonstrators and that “mass riots” were planned for March 1.

The trouble began early on the morning of March 1, when police moved in on several hundred protestors sleeping in tents pitched on Freedom Square in central Yerevan.

According to an official statement, it was the protesters who started fighting the police.

“The demonstrators began to throw stones, branches from trees, metal bars and bottles of inflammable liquid at the police. There were calls to overthrow the authorities with violence, and the police were abused,” said the statement.

Not so, say opposition activists like Hovhanes, who told IWPR that the police made the first move, beating protestors and setting fire to their tents. Hovhanes said he heard them speaking Armenian with a distinct Karabakh accent, indicating that they came from that region.

One of the protesters who got beaten up, Haik Yeritsian, said the assault began at around 6.30 am. “Men armed to the teeth attacked without warning and began to beat people brutally,” he said.

At this point, Yeritsian said, Levon Ter-Petrosian, the former president who lost the election to Sarkisian, said, “Let’s wait and see what the military want to say.” He continued, “They said nothing and just attacked.”

Yeritsian concluded, “Now I am looking for my brother Soghoman - I’ve been looking for him for two hours.”

Many people were detained and taken away in police vehicles.

The clashes continued for several hours. By nine in the morning, Freedom Square and surrounding streets were completely occupied by armed security forces.

A cameraman told IWPR said he came to Freedom Square to film on hearing that protests were continuing there.

“The police had flooded the square,” he recalled. “The tents had already been pulled down. Suddenly a group of people began to chant ‘Levon! Levon!’ Police with electric stun-guns attacked them; the people began to run and the police chased them and began beating them.”

The cameraman said he shot footage of the incident but it was seized from him.

Opposition protestors continued to gather wherever they could. An IWPR reporter saw policemen with truncheons attacking and dispersing groups of people who had started collecting on Mashtots Avenue. Some were forced into cars and taken away.

Ter-Petrosian was escorted home and found himself effectively held under house arrest by the bodyguards the government had provided to protect him. Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian later said the opposition politician was not under arrest and was free to go out, as long as he made his own security arrangements.

At around 11 am, Ter-Petrosian held a press conference for those journalists whom the guards would let through – mainly foreigners.

“It all happened very quickly,” he told the reporters. “In ten or 15 minutes the square was cleared, there were no people left on it, and it was full of police engaged in this operation.”

Ter-Petrosian said that much of the violence committed against the police was the work of “provocateurs”, and that the police themselves had distributed improvised weapons.

He stressed that he enjoyed immunity because he had formally filed a protest with the constitutional court the day before challenging the results of the election.

In the meantime, thousands of opposition supporters converged on the French embassy in the centre of Yerevan – a place they considered relatively safe because of the proximity of western diplomats -- and continued their protests outside it.

Large groups of armed police units moved to the scene, and there were fears that further violence would break out.

After Armenia’s human rights ombudsman and members of parliament from the opposition Heritage Party arrived on the scene, the police withdrew.

The protestors built a barricade out of buses and armed themselves with metal spikes and stones. A rubbish truck tried to pass through but was stopped and pelted with clothes and shoes.

At around 3 pm, a police jeep drove into the crowd, and two people were injured. Furious protestors smashed and burned the vehicle. Not far away, a clash broke out near the mayor’s office and opposition parliamentarian Armen Martirosian was injured as he tried to calm things down.

Despite being urged to disperse, more protesters arrived on the scene for a rally which started at around 4 pm. The streets around the embassy filled up with armoured vehicles and armed men.

President Kocharian called a press conference for eight in the evening, but it was conducted in the end by foreign minister Oskanian, who warned that a state of emergency might be imposed and called on protestors to go home.

An hour later, shots were heard in the streets and a group of opposition protestors were dispersed with tear gas.

On Leo Street, a fight broke out between local residents and demonstrators, on the one hand, and armed police on the other. A supermarket had its windows smashed and the contents were stolen. The authorities said it was the work of looters, although one local resident said she saw goods being taken away in a police car.

Clashes continued into the evening, with dozens of wounded on both sides.

At around ten in the evening of March 1, President Kocharian imposed a state of emergency in Yerevan, restricting the rights of free assembly, media, parties and public organisations.

The protests continued until five the next morning.

The protestors finally dispersed when Ter-Petrosian urged them to go home and continue their fight by other means.

A special session of parliament was convened at six that morning, which approved a state of emergency for a 20-day period.

“If we hadn’t taken the appropriate measures we would simply have allowed supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian to continue their rioting in our city,” said the speaker of parliament, Tigran Torosian.

“The decision to impose a state of emergency was not taken lightly; there was no other solution.”

An official police statement issued on March 2 said that an “uncontrollable crowd” of 7,000 had been looting and attacking cars and shops.

Official figures said eight people died – seven of them protestors and one a policeman. As of March 3, 59 people remained in hospital, 27 of them police.

One of those who died was opposition activist Gor Kloyan, a 29-year-old father of two, who was hit in the stomach by a bullet.

Gor had been in the crowd next to a statue near both the mayor’s office and the French embassy. He was taken to hospital but died early on March 2. His relatives were angry with medical staff, saying that they did not treat him swiftly enough.

Armen Soghoyan, head of the Health and Social Security Department at the mayor’s office in Yerevan, told IWPR that he was aware of four dead bodies being brought in to the hospitals controlled by his office.

“The health ministry has all the figures,” he said. “We sent our figures to them, but they do not share their figures with us.”

“Only ten per cent of hospitals are under the mayor’s office so I really cannot say anything about other hospitals in town”, he said, adding that, “whenever there is a state of emergency, a lot of different rumours go around.”

International bodies and politicians expressed alarm at the news from Yerevan, and the OSCE’s Finnish presidency dispatched Finnish diplomat Heikki Talvitie to Armenia to act as a mediator.

Many Armenians are still reeling at the sudden outbreak of violence in their capital.

“Whoever’s fault it is, this bloodshed will cost us all dearly,” said Aram Grigorian, a 56-year-old native of Yerevan, reflecting the shock felt by many. “It has set us back for several decades.”

The head of the Armenian church, Catholicos Garegin II, urged his compatriots to show restraint.

“Today the Armenian people are grieving for their dead sons. We never expected that the innate common sense of our people would give way to hatred and enmity,” he said.

“We are answerable to history and to future generations; we therefore cannot allow further irrational acts to take place which would threaten the stability of our country.”

Of major world leaders, the Russian and French presidents, Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy, have congratulated Serzh Sarkisian on his victory but other western governments have not yet sent formal messages as they are waiting for a final observers’ report on the February 19 poll.

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