By Gevorg Stamboltsian
The Armenian authorities have permanently banned opposition demonstrations outside President Robert Kocharian’s official residence in Yerevan in accordance with a new controversial law on public gatherings, a senior police official confirmed over the weekend.
Hovannes Hunanian, the deputy chief of the national police, said the presidential palace is among “strategically important” locations such as the Metsamor nuclear plant and an underground natural gas storage facility that will now be off limits to any protesters.
The list unveiled by Hunanian was drawn up by the Police Service and approved by the government last week. Also included in it are the Yerevan buildings housing Armenia’s Central Bank and state television and radio. The law in question, which has been criticized by the Council of Europe, stipulates that no gatherings can be held within a 150-meter radius of those facilities.
“The presidential residence was included in the list only because it is considered a facility of supreme state significance,” Hunanian said. “That is where the president of the republic, one of the symbols of this country, sits.”
Asked whether the parliament and cabinet buildings are deemed less significant, he replied: “They are also considered symbols, but not prime ones.”
The presidential palace was the focal point of last spring’s opposition campaign of demonstrations aimed at forcing Kocharian to step down. The campaign culminated in the April 12 opposition march by thousands of people toward along the city’s Marshal Baghramian Avenue leading to Kocharian’s residence.
Security forces stopped thousands of people from approaching the building and used water cannons and stun grenades to disperse them in the early hours of April 13. Scores of protesters were arrested and injured.
Hunanian also publicized a separate list of virtually all squares in Yerevan as well as the cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor where rallies and other gatherings will be allowed only after their organizers inform the authorities in advance. It includes the two traditional venues for opposition rallies in the capital.
The existence of the two lists is mandated by the law on rallies which was passed following the failed opposition drive for regime change. Under the legislation organizers do not need government permission to stage protests. However, it gives the police sweeping powers to “forcibly discontinue” demonstrations in case of “violations of the law.” That could be violent incidents and calls for a “violent overthrow” of government.
The so-called Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, a body monitoring legislative reform in the organization’s member states, has concluded that the law does not meet European standards on freedom of assembly. Similar conclusions have been drawn by experts from the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. One of them said in a report last April that “there continues to be no sense that [holding a demonstration in Armenia] is a legitimate activity subject only to concerns about the maintenance of public order.”
Despite these objections, the law was passed by the National Assembly and signed by Kocharian on May 4.
Meanwhile, Armenian opposition leaders said the permanent ban on rallies outside the presidential palace will not affect their continued struggle for regime change. “We will not effect regime change with marches. We will effect regime change with the expression of the popular will,” said Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the National Unity Party (AMK).
“If they think that they can solve Armenia’s problems and do everything they want by preventing rallies, they are badly mistaken,” said Vazgen Manukian, a leading member of the opposition Artarutyun alliance. “Yes, it will be hard to hold rallies. But if push comes to shove, the opposition will hold rallies anywhere it wants and the government won’t be able to do anything about that.”