By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Karine Kalantarian and Shakeh Avoyan
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian claimed on Monday that the excessive use of force against participants of last week’s peaceful anti-government protest was utterly justified because its organizers plot a “coup d’etat.”
State prosecutors, meanwhile, questioned some of the organizers and made more arrests as part of their criminal investigation into the opposition campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation. A man who threw a plastic bottle at a police officer during the dispersal of the April 13 opposition rally was charged with attempting to “seize state power.”
“This was a coup attempt and the authorities must take appropriate actions within the legal framework,” Markarian told RFE/RL, in his first public reaction to the violence. “Political consequences of the opposition actions are much more severe than the actions taken by the police.”
“I would like to stress the difference between the people and the protesters. The people are not the 5,000 or 10,000 individuals who take to the streets,” he added.
Markarian reaffirmed calls for “dialogue” issued to the opposition by the three parties represented in his coalition cabinet. But he made it clear that any discussion of a “referendum of confidence” in President Robert Kocharian sought by the opposition is out of question.
The opposition leaders have rejected the proposed dialogue, saying that they will not talk to the top pro-presidential parties until the authorities end “repressions” and release opposition activists arrested in the crackdown. They also argue that key government decisions in Armenia are taken by Kocharian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
Three leading members of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) were on Monday invited to the Prosecutor-General’s Office for questioning. The interrogation came after the prosecutors charged two more opposition activists over the weekend in connection with the controversial criminal inquiry. One of them was identified as Edgar Arakelian.
A statement by the prosecutors said the resident of Lusakert, a small town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, took part in the unsanctioned opposition protest dispersed by the police on the night from April 12 to April 13 and hit a law-enforcement officer with a “mineral water bottle.” Arakelian was remanded in custody by a Yerevan court on Sunday pending trial on coup charges.
Arakelian is the sixth oppositionist to face criminal prosecution. Among the other detainees are three senior members of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party, including former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian. They have already been described as “political prisoners” by some Armenian human rights groups.
According to opposition representatives, about 500 supporters and members of Artarutyun as well as its ally, the National Unity Party, have been arrested, forcibly taken to police or jailed in the last two weeks. The information was not confirmed or denied by government sources. The police say only that they detained 115 people during the troubled Yerevan rally and that most of them were released later last week.
But the opposition claims that dozens of its supporters are still unaccounted for, suspecting that they are either being “illegally” kept in police custody or were secretly hospitalized with serious injuries.
“Some people are missing. We haven’t heard from them since the night from April 12 to April 13,” Dustrik Mkhitarian, a senior Artarutyun activist, told RFE/RL. Mkhitarian said she has filed written requests for the clarification of their whereabouts to the Justice Ministry, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdian and the Yerevan office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“According to our unconfirmed information, people with the most serious injuries are kept in the police hospital,” she said.
Mkhitarian and other opposition representatives also complained that they have still not received any official explanation or justification of the ransacking of the main opposition offices by the police. The police confiscated some of their documents, computers and other equipment. It is still not clear if they had search warrants.
Also, no one has so far been arrested or charged in connection with physical attacks on Armenian journalists who covered the opposition rallies on April 13 and April 5. In the latter case police officers, led by General Hovannes Varian, stood by and watched as a group of pro-government thugs smashed television and still cameras that filmed their attempts to disrupt the protest. Next time law-enforcement officers themselves beat up four journalists that witnessed their heavy-handed tactics.
One of the journalists said Varian, who is the deputy chief of the national Police Service, personally took away his camera and ordered his brutal beating.