By Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian authorities ignored Thursday domestic and international criticism to continue arrests of opposition supporters, bringing to at least 155 the number of people fined and jailed for their participation in anti-government rallies.
Opposition leaders and human rights activists again denounced the unprecedented crackdown as an attempt to intimidate presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian’s supporters ahead of next week’s run-off vote. The law-enforcement authorities, however, continued to deny that the arrests are politically motivated.
According to Demirchian’s campaign headquarters, at least 20 people, most of them the candidate’s election proxies, were rounded up on Thursday. “Those are people who are respected in their neighborhoods and can prevent vote falsification,” said Albert Bazeyan of the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party. He said dozens of Demirchian proxies have gone into hiding to avoid arrest.
“The authorities are engaged in state terror,” Bazeyan charged.
The Armenian Police, which have made the arrests, declined a comment, while a Justice Ministry spokesman said 86 individuals have been sentenced to up to 15 days’ imprisonment since the start of post-election opposition rallies last Friday. The official, Ara Saghatelian, told RFE/RL that 69 other detainees have been fined and set free.
Some detainees appear unaccounted for. Lusine Grigorian, a woman from the southern town of Armavir, said she has not heard from her husband Azat ever since he was taken away from his home on February 22 by a group of men who refused to identify themselves. “After breaking into our apartment, they said their boss wants to talk to him for 30 minutes,” she told RFE/RL. “I still don’t know his whereabouts.”
Azat Grigorian ran one of Demirchian’s campaign offices in Armavir. His wife said police officials in Armavir told her to look for him in Yerevan and the nearby town of Echmiadzin. But she said the law-enforcement agencies there refused to provide any information about the disappeared man.
Another Armavir woman, Marine Harutiunian, was also looking for her husband Karlos Harutiunian, a local leader of Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK). He too was arrested on February 22. “I still don’t know where he is,” she said. “Wherever I go, they say he is not there. I don’t know where to look for him.”
Saghatelian said the Justice Ministry does not control police detention centers and has information only on those citizens who have already been sentenced by courts. He again claimed that they got short jail sentences for committing “hooligan acts” and disrupting law and order during the recent days demonstrations.
“These arrests have absolutely nothing to do with law and order,” countered Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a local human rights group. “The authorities are simply creating an atmosphere of fear ahead of the second round.”
Ishkhanian said the Justice Ministry promised to provide him with the full list of sentenced activists on Friday. In the words of Bazeyan and other opposition leaders, the ministry has until now refused to publicize that list. Saghatelian denied the claims though.
The arrests have reportedly forced scores of opposition activists to go underground. Gor Martirosian, a pro-opposition member of the election commission in a village near Armavir, said he fled his home last week after being warned of his imminent arrest. “I don’t bed down in my home for the sixth consecutive day,” he said. “When I show up secretly, my little kids ask: ‘Dad, are they going to catch you too?’”
Martirosian is affiliated with the opposition National Unity party of Artashes Geghamian. He said the police are hunting for him because he “fought against falsifications” on election day.
The arrests were on Wednesday deplored by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In a statement from Strasbourg, PACE President Peter Schieder called for the “immediate release” of all detainees. Also expressing concern was Peter Eicher, head of election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Eicher told RFE/RL on Tuesday that the monitoring mission has not seen any evidence of “hooliganism” committed by the oppositionists and criticized the authorities for sentencing them in closed trials and denying them access to lawyers.
The chairman of the Armenian International Bar Association, Tigran Ter-Yesayan, said lawyers have been allowed to attend the mass trials only in several “exceptional cases.” He also complained that attorneys affiliated with the association are denied any possibility to visit the detainees in jail and have great difficulty getting relevant information from the courts.
The government crackdown is being carried out under Article 180 of the Armenian Code of Administrative Misdemeanors, a holdover from the Soviet era strongly criticized by the PACE and other international human rights watchdogs. The Helsinki Committee’s Ishkhanian argued that the sentences passed by the courts across the country are “illegal” because the clause envisages criminal liability only for “organizing and holding” unsanctioned street protests.
He said Armenia has no special law regulating such gathering and its authorities should therefore be guided only a constitutional provision that places no restrictions on citizens’ freedom of assembly. None of the demonstrations held by the opposition so far was violent.