By Hrach Melkumian
Seven Armenian human and civil rights organizations have set up a “rapid reaction group” to deal with continuing arrests of opposition supporters which they condemn as “state terror” against dissent.
About 60 people were detained by the police for attending Friday’s unsanctioned opposition demonstration in Yerevan, its organizers said on Saturday. They said a dozen of them were tried and sentenced by courts to up to 15 days in prison overnight.
“They take people to police stations and try to extract from them written promises that they will not take part in rallies anymore with threats of criminal prosecution,” said Albert Bazeyan, a leader of the opposition Artarutyun alliance.
The Armenian police confirmed the fact of fresh arrests but could not provide any numbers. A spokesman promised to provide the information later on.
Two residents of the southern town of Artashat, Aksel Yepremian and Ashot Karapetian, were caught as they walked down Tumanian Street adjacent to Freedom Square, the venue of the opposition protest. They said plainclothes police officers told them that they “disrupted order” and “insulted girls.”
“We asked them to show us whom we offended,” Karapetian said. “They said, ‘Get in the car, you’ll find out later’.”
They were released the next morning after being fined 1,000 drams (about $2) by a court. “The judge said, ‘I forgive you because this is the first time. Tell fellow rally participants that we are ready to do anything and go back home and mind your business’,” Karapetian added.
The arrests mirror a government crackdown on the opposition launched during and in the wake of last year’s disputed presidential election when hundreds of rally participants were briefly jailed in closed trials condemned by domestic and international human rights groups.
In a joint statement, the seven civic groups, among them the Armenian Helsinki Committee and Civil Society Institute (CSI), said the government crackdown has led to “mass violations” of human rights. They listed “illegal” arrests of opposition activists, “arbitrary” government bans on opposition rallies, the de facto transport blockade of Yerevan and the failure of the police to stop Monday’s attack on journalists by a pro-government thugs.
“Evaluating all of this as state terror and an attempt to spread an atmosphere of fear in our country, we announce the creation of a rapid reaction group to protect human rights,” the statement said.
According to CSI chairman Artak Kirakosian, the non-governmental organizations will act in a coordinated way and publicize relevant information on a daily basis. “We are also thinking about launching protest actions,” he told RFE/RL.
The statement’s signatories also include the Gyumri-based Asparez Club of journalists and the Vanadzor branch of the Helsinki Civil Assembly. Incidentally, the head of the branch, Artur Sakunts, was himself arrested and jailed for ten days after reporting serious irregularities in last year’s presidential election.
Sakunts’s imprisonment, carried out under Armenia’s Code of Administrative Offences, was condemned at the time by Human Right Watch. The New York-based and other international human rights organizations, including the Council of Europe, have long been pushing for the abolition of the code, viewing it as a Soviet-era tool for government repression.
So far only one opposition activist, Suren Sureniants of the Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, has been arrested and charged in connection with the ongoing criminal investigation into the opposition campaign to oust President Robert Kocharian. Sureniants stands accused of calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order” and publicly “insulting” senior government officials. He denies the accusations.
“Suren Sureniants was arrested for his political views and activities which gives us reason to declare him a political prisoner,” the CSI, the Helsinki Committee and three other NGOs said in a separate statement earlier this week.
The statement drew parallels between the accusations leveled against Sureniants and criminal code clauses on “anti-Soviet propaganda” that had for decades been used by the Soviet authorities to throw dissidents into jails.