By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
A regular session of Armenia’s parliament was disrupted on Monday after the majority of deputies representing the three governing parties refused to attend it, citing the escalating standoff with the opposition.
The boycott, the first of its kind in the country’s history, was announced just hours before thousands of opposition supporters were due to march towards the National Assembly building and the nearby residence of President Robert Kocharian to demand the latter’s resignation.
A brief statement by the Republican Party (HHK), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Orinats Yerkir Party said the move is aimed at aimed at “avoiding artificial tensions.” Vahan Hovannisian, a deputy parliament speaker and Dashnaktsutyun leader, claimed that the coalition partners wanted to stave off possible clashes between their supporters and the opposition crowd.
Some leaders of the parliament’s opposition minority, which has been boycotting its sessions since February, were quick to criticize the boycott. Victor Dallakian of the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc accused the majority of “dodging responsibility” for the increasingly tense situation. But Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the National Unity Party, welcomed it, saying that the ruling coalition defied Kocharian.
Some local observers suggested that by failing to show up for this week’s session the pro-government lawmakers blocked possible attempts by the Kocharian-controlled Office of Prosecutor-General to arrest and prosecute their opposition colleagues. Under Armenian law legislators enjoy immunity from prosecution which can be lifted only by the parliament majority. Without such an authorization they can only be kept in police custody for up to 72 hours.
Two deputies affiliated with Artarutyun, Tatul Manaserian and Vartan Khachatrian, were briefly detained on Monday as they campaigned in the city’s northern and southern districts, urging local residents to attend the opposition rally due in the afternoon. Manaserian told RFE/RL from a police station that he is suspected of attempting to run his car over a pedestrian. He and Mkrtchian were released shortly afterwards.
The possibility of lengthier arrests became even more real over the weekend when state television read out a statement by the prosecutors saying that two armed men were detained on Friday for allegedly planning to carry out a “terrorist act” at the behest of an unspecified opposition lawmaker. The statement claimed that the opposition paid the two men to shoot at and “terrorize” its own supporters during a street protest.
The state-run Armenian Public Television aired late on Monday the footage of what it said is an interrogation of the two men who claimed to have been paid by Artarutyun lawmaker Smbat Ayvazian to fire gunshots and “spread panic” during the first opposition rally held in Yerevan on Friday.
The claims were dismissed by the opposition as another manifestation of “repressions” unleashed by Kocharian. They said at least 254 of their activists and supporters across the country have been detained or forcibly taken to police for questioning over the past two weeks.
According to the Armenian Police Service, 31 residents of Yerevan have been sentenced to between two and six days in prison while 28 others fined for attending the unsanctioned anti-Kocharian demonstrations in the capital. The police had no information on detained residents of other Armenian regions.
Witnesses said several men were caught and taken away by plainclothes police late Sunday from Yerevan’s Freedom Square where more than a hundred opposition supporters continued an around-the-clock sit-in for a third consecutive day.
The detainees were likely to be fined or jailed under the country’s Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offences which human rights say runs counter to pan-European conventions signed by Armenia. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has repeatedly expressed its “shock” at the continuing enforcement of the code.
Dallakian and another Artarutyun leader, Shavarsh referred to the arrests as “kidnappings” and a “manhunt” aimed at stifling dissent. They said the opposition has sent a letter to the Council of Europe urging it react to the crackdown.
“By resorting to state terror the illegitimate regime places Armenia outside the Council of Europe,” Shavarsh Kocharian told reporters.
According to Dallakian, police have been deployed on the highways leading to the Armenian capital to prevent residents of nearby regions from pouring into the capital. “The citizens’ freedom of movement has been illegally breached,” he said.
Also on Sunday, the authorities made a second arrest in their separate criminal investigation into the intensifying opposition campaign for regime change. Aramazad Zakarian, a senior member of the Hanrapetutyun party affiliated with Artarutyun was held as he tried to enter Freedom Square.
Another Hanrapetutyun leader, Suren Sureniants, was arrested a week ago for allegedly calling for a “violent overthrow” of Kocharian and publicly insulting senior government officials. Sureniants and his allies reject the charges as politically motivated. Some local human rights groups have already declared him a political prisoner.