By Karine Kalantarian and Gayane Danielian
The Armenian Police, widely held responsible for this week’s stabbing of an opposition leader, pledged Thursday to take additional security measures to protect law and order at campaign rallies staged by opposition presidential candidates.
General Hovannes Varian, deputy chief of the Police, said as many as 100 law-enforcement officers will guard on Friday the campaign gathering of candidate Aram Sarkisian in the southern town of Artashat, the scene of anti-opposition trouble on Tuesday.
A large group of young men, who presented themselves as supporters of incumbent Robert Kocharian, disrupted separate rallies by two other opposition contenders, Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian. Karapetian’s campaign manager, Hayk Babukhanian, was beaten up and stabbed in the back after he tried to scare off the aggressive youths with a gun shot into the air. The incident raised more fears about the freedom and fairness of this month’s presidential elections.
Witnesses said police officers present at Artashat’s main square did not attempt to stop the attackers reportedly linked to the local authorities. According to Varian, 15 of them have been placed under a police investigation and will be punished if found guilty. “All the guilty will definitely be punished,” he said. “I think these incidents should be a lesson for all of us.”
The police general, who is responsible for public order, gave the assurances at a special meeting of the Central Election Commission (CEC), which has criticized the law-enforcement authorities in Artashat and the broader Ararat province for not preventing the violence. Varian said at the same time that Babukhanian himself provoked the attack by using his pistol.
However, Babukhanian’s Union for Constitutional Rights (SIM) party insists that he did so in self-defense. In a statement, the SIM alleged an official cover-up of the attack, saying that the police have made no arrests and have not even questioned the victim.
The opposition candidates allege that the Artashat incidents were orchestrating by the authorities with the aim of intimidating Kocharian’s challengers. “The authorities are trying to create an atmosphere of fear and impunity,” said Vagharshak Harutiunian, a former defense minister who coordinates activities of an umbrella structure uniting 16 leading opposition parties.
Meeting with election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday, Harutiunian and other representatives of the opposition grouping made fresh allegations of irregularities. They claimed that Kocharian supporters continue to illegally use government resources for the incumbent’s victory.
“Almost everywhere the heads of local governments manage Kocharian’s regional campaign offices,” said Dustrik Mkhitarian of the National Democratic Party. She also said the authorities are doing little to correct notoriously inaccurate voter lists which still contain the names of thousands of deceased citizens.