By Emil Danielyan and Hrach Melkumian
Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have expressed concern at the arrests of dozens of Armenian opposition activists that followed last week’s presidential vote and continued on Tuesday. They also complained that the Armenian authorities are doing little to investigate numerous reported instances of fraud.
“I am very concerned about the arrests which have been going on, and we have been trying to follow up on this,” the American head of the OSCE monitoring mission in Armenia, Peter Eicher, told RFE/RL in an interview.
“We have been told by the government that people were arrested because there was evidence that they were involved in hooliganism or broke the law,” Eicher said. “I haven’t seen this evidence yet, and hope to be able to have a chance to look at it. We were attending these demonstrations and found that they were essentially peaceful rallies.”
Government sources said a total of 122 individuals, most of them supporters of opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian, have been taken into custody since Friday. They said 54 of them have been sentenced to between 3 and 15 days in jail, while the 68 others have been fined and set free.
Demirchian’s representatives said the number of detainees exceeds one hundred. One of them, Dustrik Mkhitarian, said: “The police continue to burst into homes and intimidate our people.” She claimed that the whereabouts of as many as 70 opposition activists remain unknown, with the authorities refusing to provide any information to their families.
The opposition leaders say the crackdown is illegal and accuse incumbent Robert Kocharian of trying to bully his challenger’s supporters ahead of the March 5 run-off.
The Armenian Justice Ministry on Tuesday declined to comment on the charges, repeating only that many of the detainees had a criminal record. But an opposition-linked human rights group, Tanik, referred to them as “political prisoners.” It said their unusually brief trials took place with serious violations of the due process of law.
“We are also concerned that the trials were apparently held in closed session and the individuals arrested did not have access to lawyers,” Eicher said.
The prosecutions are carried out under a clause Armenia’s Code of Administrative Misdemeanors which has long been criticized by domestic and international human rights groups. Article 180 of the code envisages criminal liability only for “organizing and holding” illegal street protests.
Eicher also deplored “threats of violence and unconstitutional action” voiced by some opposition leaders during the rallies. He said he raised the issue with Demirchian on Sunday. “Mr. Demirchian has assured me that he has told his followers that they must take only legal action,” the OSCE official said.
Eicher further noted that the authorities have not taken legal action against individuals who allegedly committed vote irregularities during the February 19 first round of voting. “I am a little bit concerned that we saw so many violations of election law on election day and election night, but there seems to have been little action taken so far to hold people accountable for those violations,” he said.
Eicher said his 200-strong team of monitors, which also comprised officials from the Council of Europe, stands by its conclusion that “there were a number of key international standards which were not met by this election.” “Any time we see ballot box stuffing and falsification of results, that’s very significant,” he said.
Eicher made it clear that the Armenian vote, closely watched by the international community, may still get an overall positive assessment if the authorities handle the run-off properly. But he added: “They are not going to get a hundred percent positive report because we’ve had five or six weeks of election process which had some problems.”