By Emil Danielyan
The United States has made a cautiously-worded criticism of the Armenian government’s toughest ever crackdown on the opposition, calling on “both sides” to refrain from violence. The Council of Europe has reacted in a similar way.
“The United States is concerned about the current political situation in Armenia, particularly the sharp escalation in confrontation between the government and the opposition,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a brief statement late Tuesday. “We call on both sides to enter into a dialogue that will lessen tension and focus the political process on the challenges of continued political and economic reform.”
“Physical assaults, raids on political party offices and widespread arrests and detentions of opposition activists by the police do not contribute to creating an atmosphere conducive to political dialogue,” Boucher added. “We call on all sides to respect the role of peaceful assembly and to take all steps to prevent violence.”
The U.S. official did not specifically comment on the heavy-handed dispersal in the early hours of Tuesday of a peaceful opposition demonstration by security forces that used rubber clubs, water cannons and stun grenades. Scores of people were beaten up as they fled the scene in panic. The bloody drama started on Baghramian Avenue, just outside the heavily guarded U.S. embassy in Yerevan.
Some U.S. citizens living in the city were among the eyewitnesses. “As I was catching my breath, I noticed two men directly across the street from me, with a bunch of riot gear police running after them,” one of them wrote on a web site. “One police officer had another man by the neck and he was inflicting kick after kick on the man's body.”
It was the first State Department statement on Armenia since last year’s presidential elections criticized as undemocratic by international observers. Washington expressed at the time its “deep disappointment” with the Armenian authorities’ handling of the poll.
The Council of Europe also expressed concern about the situation in Armenia on Wednesday. "In a democracy, people are free to gather and express their views - even if they are critical of the President or of the government,” the organization’s secretary general, Walter Schwimmer, said in a statement. “I call on the Armenian authorities to guarantee all human rights which are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The president of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), Peter Schieder, wrote to Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, asking for “detailed information” on the crackdown. Schieder also voiced “great concern” at the mass arrests of opposition activists, including a member of the Armenian delegation to the PACE, Shavarsh Kocharian. Kocharian was released late Tuesday along with two other opposition lawmakers.
Schieder also mentioned “alleged ill-treatment of the media,” referring to the severe beating of three Armenian journalists by police officers. The beating has been condemned by Armenian and international media watchdogs.
“We call on Armenian authorities to investigate these attacks against our colleagues and bring those responsible to justice," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “We also urge officials to ensure that journalists in Armenia are able to do their jobs freely and safely.”