Tensions on Eve of Yerevan Rally

Armenia braces for protests commemorating violent break-up of opposition demonstration.

Tensions on Eve of Yerevan Rally

Armenia braces for protests commemorating violent break-up of opposition demonstration.

Opposition activists will defy the authorities on March 1 to mark the anniversary of a police crackdown on protesters last year that left ten people dead.



Both sides of the political divide hope there will be no repeat of last year’s violence, but observers say there has been no significant easing of the tensions that caused the mass protests a year ago.



Last year’s protests were the result of opposition anger over the results of February 19 presidential elections, which they say were stolen by now-president Serzh Sargsian.



The then president imposed a state of emergency after the demonstration, restricted the media, and sent in troops and armed police – resulting in the deaths of eight opposition protesters and two policemen.



“The political crisis in Armenia has still not been overcome,” said Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.



Indeed, opposition anger has been heightened by the police investigation into the events. Prosecutors say they have opened 90 criminal cases against 110 people. Courts have already ruled on 97 cases involving 101 people, and five people remain on the run.



The most high-profile detainees, seven opposition leaders, remain behind bars, awaiting trial. Their cases have been repeatedly postponed. No police have been charged in relation to the deaths.



“The Armenian authorities’ response to the March 1 events has been one-sided,” said Human Rights Watch in a damning report published earlier this month.



“While they have investigated, prosecuted, and convicted dozens of opposition members, sometimes in flawed and politically motivated trials, for organising the demonstration and participating in violent disorder, they have not prosecuted a single representative of the authorities for excessive use of force. The Office of the Public Prosecutor has also dismissed all allegations of ill-treatment and torture in detention as unfounded.”



The opposition says its supporters were engaged in lawful protests on March 1 and were subjected to an unprovoked attack, despite calls from the international community for a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.



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



The trouble began early on the morning, when police moved in on several hundred protesters sleeping in tents pitched on Freedom Square in central Yerevan. They cleared the square quickly, but subsequent protests continued all day, culminating in the state of emergency being proclaimed.



The government has promised a full probe into the events, and prosecutors have occasionally reported on the results of their own investigations, but have come no closer to announcing arrest warrants.



“I am not accusing anyone. I just want to know who killed my son. I want to know the truth,” said Aghasi Tadevosian, whose son Hamlet was one of the policemen killed in the clashes.



His words were echoed by the bereaved parents of those on the other side of the lines.



“Leaving political convictions aside, Armenians were killed by their fellow-countrymen. I am sure that the time will come when all those to blame for the crimes of March 1, as well as those before and after that day, will be punished,” said Robert Harutiunian, whose son Samvel died.



Under pressure from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the government has agreed to alter two controversial articles in their criminal code under which the seven detained opposition leaders are charged, but most opposition figures say nothing of significance has changed in the last year to prevent protests bursting out once more.



“Dialogue required actions, and not just promises. If the authorities were genuinely prepared for this, then first of all they would free the political prisoners, which must be their side of the dialogue. Secondly, we must uncover the circumstances around the deaths of ten innocent people, specifically the murderers and who gave the orders,” said Armen Martirosian, the leader of the Heritage Party’s Parliamentary group, the only opposition presence in parliament.



“There are already experts who could be deployed quickly to uncover the crime. But they have not done this, which means they do not want to solve these murders.”



City hall refused to give opposition parties permission to protest on the anniversary of the crackdown. Artak Zeynalian, representative of the opposition Armenian National Congress, said 58 political prisoners remained in prison and that the Yerevan authorities had already turned down 100 requests to hold protests about it.



He said that the opposition activists would gather at 3 pm in central Yerevan on March 1 anyway, and that they had warned police of their intentions.



Eduard Sharmazanov, a member of parliament from the ruling Republican Party, said he expected the demonstration to pass peacefully, and hoped the police would allow the protesters to express their views.



“I am far from the opinion that we must have an exclusive ruling class. If we are a country without a strong opposition, we won’t have a strong government,” he said.



Karine Asatrian is a journalist from A1+ television, and a member of IWPR's Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project funded by the European Union.
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