By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
Thousands of people again took to the streets of Yerevan Friday as the Armenian opposition continued its vocal campaign against President Robert Kocharian, despite facing the toughest yet government crackdown on its activities this week.
The leaders of the Artarutyun alliance and the National Unity Party (AMK) said they are undaunted by the violent dispersal of the previous anti-government in the capital which they condemned as a crime. The two opposition groups will stage more street protests next week, but it is not clear if they will again lead supporters towards the presidential palace.
“What happened on the night of April 13 was a crime against the Armenian people. A crime that will not be forgotten and forgiven,” Artarutyun leader Stepan Demirchian told the crowd. “Those who gave orders and those who carried out them will both be held accountable.”
“Kocharian will have no single day of a rest in this country,” said another bloc leader, Aram Sarkisian. “We will constantly gather and hold rallies.”
The rally participants, who braved a chilly and rainy weather, reacted enthusiastically to the defiant statements, chanting “Shame! Shame!” and “Kocharian, go away!” Many of them were in the crowd that marched along the city’s Marshal Baghramian Avenue on Monday leading to Kocharian’s residence. The protesters were attacked and dispersed by baton-wielding riot police in the early hours of Tuesday. Scores of them were arrested and injured in the melee followed by police raids on the offices of the main opposition parties.
Friday’s opposition demonstration was scheduled to take place in the city’s Freedom Square. But the organizers moved it to another traditional venue for their gatherings after police cordoned off and filled the square with dozens of cars and minibuses. Police officers at the scene said a rally would interfere with a concert in the adjacent Opera House dedicated to the April 16 Police Day, an official holiday.
The main ceremony marking the holiday took place in another conference hall two hours earlier and was attended Kocharian. Only reporters from the state-run Armenian Public Television and two other pro-government channels were allowed to cover the event. Kocharian was later shown on television endorsing and praising police actions during the break-up of the demonstration.
Kocharian also used the occasion to decorate some police officers with medals. According to the deputy chief of the Armenian police, Hovannes Varian, the awards had nothing to do with the police operation on Marshal Baghramian Avenue.
Later in the day, the Armenian leader made a joint public appearance with U.S. Ambassador John Ordway at a jazz festival held in his favorite Yerevan café. Television pictures showed the two men and their wives sitting next to each other and smiling. The U.S. State Department has chided the Armenian authorities for the mass arrests of opposition activists, but did not directly comment on the excessive use of force against the peaceful demonstrators.
The opposition leaders claimed that the crackdown did not remove the danger to Kocharian’s presidency. “A regime which uses force against its own people can not win,” another organizer of the demonstration, Albert Bazeyan, said. “It was a Pyrrhic victory.”
AMK leader Artashes Geghamian, who spent more than a day in hiding this week, claimed that it is the opposition that scored a “glorious victory” on that night.
The crackdown further heightened political tensions in the country, prompting fresh calls for “dialogue” by Kocharian’s leading political allies. The three pro-presidential parties that control the Armenian parliament announced on Thursday that they are ready to give the opposition a say in government policy-making.
The opposition rejected the offer, with Bazeyan saying that there will be no talks with the coalition parties until the government “repressions, arrests and illegalities” end. Bazeyan expressed outrage at the decision by a Yerevan court earlier in the day to prolong the arrest of a fellow leader of the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic), former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, for two more months.
Harutiunian, who Hanrapetutyun leaders say was beaten up in police custody, was formally charged the previous night with calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order” and “publicly insulting” senior state officials. The ex-minister did not deliver speeches in any of the recent opposition rallies.
Similar charges have been leveled against three other senior members of Hanrapetutyun arrested over the past two weeks. Some Armenian human rights groups have already declared them “political prisoners.”
The opposition parties say they have activists unaccounted for since Monday’s rally. The police claim to have made 115 arrests during the troubled protest and insist that most of the detainees have been released from custody.