By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
Thousands of supporters of defeated presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian demonstrated on Friday outside the Armenian Police and National Security Service to protest fresh arrests of opposition activists reported in recent days. Demirchian accused the authorities of resorting to “large-scale repressions.”
Opposition leaders said more than 30 people have been detained since Monday for their participation in the continuing rallies against the official results of the disputed presidential election. Most of them are said to have been sentenced to between three and fifteen days in prison.
The law-enforcement agencies have not confirmed or denied the reports. A judge in Yerevan’s central Kentron district told RFE/RL on Thursday that at least 10 individuals have been fined and jailed by the local court for taking part in the unsanctioned gatherings.
One woman said she was detained and fined 1,500 drams ($2.5) on charges of “insulting” President Robert Kocharian during a protest outside the presidential palace in Yerevan.
About 200 Demirchian supporters across Armenia had already been rounded up shortly before the March 5 second round of voting. At least 80 of them were given short jail sentences in closed trials condemned by local and international human rights groups. The authorities set them free following strong protests from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The renewed crackdown seems to be following the same pattern, with the opposition activists again jailed under Armenia’s controversial Code of Administrative Misdemeanors which the Council of Europe and other human rights organizations believe runs to counter to international standards. A clause in the code envisages punishment only for those who “organize and hold” unsanctioned street protests. None of the organizers of the ongoing anti-Kocharian rallies has been arrested or fined yet.
Several thousand Demirchian supporters marched past the main police building in Yerevan, shouting “Freedom!” and demanding the release of the detainees. One of the opposition leaders, Albert Bazeyan, denounced the crackdown as “illegal” and warned that further arrests would face “popular resistance.” He accused the authorities of trying to intimidate their political opponents.
The protesters expressed their solidarity with the brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian, arrested last week on charges of ordering the recent murder of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian, as they reached the nearby offices of the National Security Service. The suspect, Armen Sarkisian, is kept in a high security jail located in the building’s basement.
The opposition claims that the grave charges leveled against Sarkisian are politically motivated and aimed at discrediting Demirchian’s campaign for the annulment of the election results. “Armen is ready to sit in jail until Kocharian leaves office,” Aram Sarkisian said. “His arrest has not frightened us.”
However, state prosecutors strongly deny any political motives behind the case. They insist that they have sufficient evidence to prosecute the man for Naghdalian’s killing that shocked the country.
The lawyer representing the Naghdalian family, Ruben Rshtuni, defended the investigators on Friday. “The information I have allows me to say that the investigation is on the right track,” Rshtuni told reporters.
In a speech before the march, Demirchian said the opposition will continue to keep its struggle within the constitutional framework. “We want Armenia to become the most democratic country of the region,” he said. “We will not allow the establishment of a dictatorship.”
Several other speakers, pointing to strong Western criticism of the authorities’ handling of the election, accused Kocharian of leading Armenia to international isolation. One of them, Shavarsh Kocharian, drew parallels with Iraq, saying that Armenia could pay dearly for having an “illegitimate regime.”
“The key question now is whether Armenia will integrate into the international community or become its target [of sanctions],” he said.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on Thursday downplayed implications of the Western election criticism. But he admitted that it will complicate the Armenian government’s efforts to forge closer ties with Europe.