By Shakeh Avoyan, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
Risking more tough action by the government, the Armenian opposition decided on Wednesday to resume its rallies in central Yerevan this week as all of its leaders except Aram Sarkisian stopped hiding from the police.
The Artarutyun (Justice) alliance and the National Unity Party (AKM) urged supporters to again converge on the city’s Freedom Square to renew calls for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation. Their leaders would not say whether they will stage another march towards the presidential palace.
The previous such demonstration was violently broken up by riot police early on Tuesday, with scores of its participants injured and arrested. The crackdown forced several opposition leaders, including AKM leader Artashes Geghamian and Artarutyun’s Albert Bazeyan and Victor Dallakian, into hiding. All three men again appeared in public on Wednesday.
“Regime change remains our goal and we will stick to constitutional methods,” Geghamian told a news conference inside the parliament building. “Our resolve to do everything to save our people from this illegitimate government has further deepened.”
Kocharian again defended the use of truncheons, stun grenades and water cannons at the troubled rally, saying that the police actions were adequate. He warned that further opposition attempts to oust him would meet with a similar response. “Responsibility for what happened primarily falls upon those forces that espouse political extremism,” he told leaders of a small pro-presidential party.
According to the police, 115 people were arrested on the night from Monday to Tuesday and 71 of them were released within the next 24 hours. Seven persons were sentenced to up to 15 days in prison and 19 others are still being “questioned” in police custody, officials said. Opposition sources claimed that there were more detentions.
Among those set free were three members of the Armenian parliament. They were all taken to police stations as “witnesses” of an alleged opposition bid to seize power and then interrogated as “suspects” in the case. “I went to bed and fell asleep [in a police station] last night,” one of the lawmakers, Shavarsh Kocharian, said. “But then they woke me up and said that I’m no longer a suspect.”
The chief police spokesman, Sayad Shirinian, announced on state television Tuesday that Kocharian (no relation to the Armenian president) illegally carried a weapon during the dispersal of the opposition rally on the city’s Marshal Baghramian Avenue. Shirinian on Wednesday refused to explain motives for the lawmaker’s release, advising RFE/RL to ask prosecutors. However, the latter referred all inquiries back to “the authors of the police statement.”
Shavarsh Kocharian said interrogators never asked him questions about firearms. “In the end they verbally explained that ‘You know, we thought that it was your gun as it was lying nearby’. They said they later clarified that it’s not mine,” he said.
In a related development, the authorities allowed the AMK to reclaim its headquarters which was ransacked and sealed by the police as part of the crackdown. About two dozen party activists applauded as Geghamian made his way back into the office to find the locks on its doors broken, metal safes wide open and papers strewn on the floor.
“We should have brought a red tape and asked Mr. Kocharian to cut it. He’s good at presiding over bogus opening ceremonies,” he joked while officials from the city’s central administrative district removed a police seal from the main entrance door.
Geghamian claimed that police officers confiscated party documents, newspapers, magazines and even his family photos. “See, they took away all of the newspapers with my articles and other materials of interest to me. They were kept here in folders,” he told RFE/RL, showing an empty drawer on his desk.
“The only place they did not touch is our lavatory. I guess such places are sacred for them,” Geghamian added from his bathroom.
The police continued to occupy the head office of Hanrapetutyun, one of the opposition parties affiliated with Artarutyun. In Bazeyan’s words, the party’s entire leadership, including Aram Sarkisian, will gather outside the ground-floor office on Thursday. “We will demand that they open our office so that we can work,” he said.
Late in the evening police towed away and impounded several cars parked outisde the Hanrapetutyun office since Monday. Their owners, including parliament deputy Smbat Ayvazian, are still on the run.
Meanwhile, two leaders of the parliament’s pro-Kocharian majority met Wednesday with Geghamian to discuss ways of defusing the serious political crisis. Deputy speaker Tigran Torosian and the parliamentary leader of the Orinats Yerkir Party, Samvel Balasanian, renewed their offer of a “dialogue” with the opposition.
Torosian said the three-party ruling coalition is ready to discuss the “legality” of a 2003 Constitutional Court ruling that called for a referendum of confidence in Kocharian to be held within a year. The opposition has extensively used the ruling in its case for regime change.
“I am convinced that there are serious grounds to show them that that decision unfortunately contradicts both the constitution and the law on the Constitutional Court,” Torosian said.
“It is impossible to resolve any problem by revolutionary means,” Balasanian said for his part.
But Geghamian dismissed the offer, arguing that all key government decisions in Armenia are taken by Kocharian and his top lieutenant, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. “My partners and I are ready to talk to them live on television on any issue,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian greeting participants of their first joint rally in Freedom Square on Friday, April 9.)