By Shakeh Avoyan
The Armenian opposition said on Saturday that dozens of its supporters were rounded up overnight for their participation in Friday’s mass protest against President Robert Kocharian’s controversial reelection in the recent presidential run-off.
Some of them were facing closed trials in central Yerevan, in a further sign of a renewed government crackdown on supporters of defeated presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian who continues to accuse Kocharian of rigging the vote.
Opposition sources told RFE/RL that at least 30 people were detained by the police following Friday’s anti-Kocharian rally. “This list is not final. We keep getting the names of more and more arrested people,” said Dustrik Mkhitarian, a senior activist at Demirchian’s campaign headquarters.
Another top oppositionist, parliament deputy Emma Khudabashian, put the number of detainees at 45. She said 15 of them were sentenced to between 3 and 15 days in prison, while the others were fined and set free. “According to our information, the [country’s] police chief gathered the heads of his territorial divisions last night and issued each of them with an order to arrest between 15 and 20 people in their respective areas,” Khudabashian claimed.
The Armenian Police again refused to comment on the allegations and other arrest reports. But the spokesman for the Justice Ministry, Ara Saghatelian, confirmed the fact of the arrests. “Over the past week 40 citizens have been subjected to administrative punishment,” he told RFE/RL.
However, Saghatelian declined to specify how many of them were held over the past 24 hours and to detail charges leveled against those individuals.
There was clear evidence of the arrests in the court of first instance of Yerevan’s central Kentron district where at least five persons were tried Saturday for attending the unsanctioned gatherings, “insulting” law-enforcement officers, “disrupting public order” and other alleged offences. The brief trials were taking place in closed sessions. Even lawmaker Khudabashian was not allowed to attend them.
“The judge asked whether I participated in the rallies,” Artush, a middle-aged man, said as he awaited a verdict outside the courtroom. “I said I was at the rally by chance. I just watched it for 30 minutes and left.”
He was sentenced to 7 days’ imprisonment shortly afterwards.
Another defendant awaiting punishment, Garnik Khanzadian, also denied taking part in the opposition protest. The 73-year-old man said he just walked through the crowd on his way to a nearby café where he bought pastry for his wife. “Am I a criminal?” he asked in disbelief.
Shushan Arakelian, who admitted supporting the opposition, said she was caught by the police and fined 1,500 drams ($2.5) after being forced to sign a false confession. “They dictated me a testimony alleging that I impeded traffic on Abovian street [in the city center],” she said.
There were similar reports from other parts of the country. Kamo Avetisian, a resident of Aragats village in central Armenia and a member of the pro-Demirchian Hanrapetutyun party, said he fled his home to avoid arrest. He claimed that police burst into his house and searched it late Friday.
“I had already been twice arrested,” he said. “It’s been three days since I left my home.”
The latest crackdown on the opposition reflects lingering political tensions in Armenia that result from the two-round presidential election rejected as fraudulent by the Demirchian campaign and criticized as undemocratic by Western observers. About 200 Demirchian supporters 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 similarly closed trials condemned by local and international human rights groups.
The arrests resumed on Monday, and there were reportedly more than 30 individuals subjected to the punishment by Friday’s opposition rally. Thousands of Demirchian supporters marched past the main police building in Yerevan to demand the release of all detainees. Ironically, some of them were to find themselves in jail a few hours later.
Demirchian and other opposition leaders claim that the crackdown is part of Kocharian’s efforts to bully his political opponents and quell the ongoing campaign of street protests. Kocharian and his top associates have not yet responded to the charges.