By Ruzanna Stepanian and Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian police have detained and questioned more opposition activists across the country ahead of the next anti-government rally in Yerevan slated for Friday.
The latest “prophylactic” measures appear to have primarily targeted members of Hanrapetutyun (Republic), the most radical of about two dozen opposition parties campaigning for the resignation of Armenia’s leadership in the wake of the November 27 disputed constitutional referendum.
Two of them claimed on Wednesday to have spent about 20 hours at the police headquarters of Charentsavan, a town about 40 kilometers north of Yerevan. Sasha Sayadian, head of the local Hanrapetutyun chapter, told RFE/RL that he and another party activist , Ara Khalafian, were forced to spend a night in police custody after refusing to sign a written pledge not to participate in Friday’s rally.
“Lieutenant Colonel [Serzh] Afian was trying to convince us to sign a pledge that we will not take part in the rally to be held on Friday,” he said, referring to the deputy chief of the Charentsavan police. “Naturally we refused to do that, as a result of which we spent a night on chairs,”
According to Sayadian, the police officer argued that the opposition gatherings are fruitless and not worth attending before releasing him and Khalafian on Tuesday morning. The oppositionist claimed that he was detained by the local police ahead of virtually every major opposition demonstration.
The police spokesman in Yerevan, Sayad Shirinian, confirmed that law-enforcement authorities continue to question oppositionists and warn them against attending unsanctioned street protests in the capital. But he insisted that the police have not told anyone to sign any statements.
Among other individuals reportedly questioned by the police this week is Poghos Abrahamian, the Hanrapetutyun leader in the southern Armavir region. He is said to have been repeatedly taken to the regional police headquarters over the past two weeks.
Another major opposition party, the National Democratic Union (AZhM), said on Wednesday that the Armavir police have conducted similar “explanatory work” with one of its local activists, Lavrenti Kirakosian. The latter became famous last year after being sentenced to 18 months in prison for allegedly possessing 59 grams of marijuana. Kirakosian was imprisoned following the April 2004 opposition campaign of demonstrations in Yerevan. The father of three refused to plead guilty to the “trumped-up” charges, saying that the drug was planted by one of the police officers who searched his modest village house.
The opposition reported dozens of brief arrests of its activists following most recent Yerevan rally held last Friday. They were reportedly caught by plainclothes police officers.
The continuing wave of detentions was denounced on Wednesday by the Armenian Helsinki Committee. Its chairman, Avetik Ishkhanian told RFE/RL that the committee and other local human rights group plan to form a “rapid reaction group” that will monitor the detentions and intervene if necessary. “That Armenia is a police state is particularly obvious during outbreaks of political tension,” he said, accusing the authorities of “terrorizing” government critics. Ishkhanian said they are being “illegally” stripped of their freedom.
The Armenian authorities, under domestic and international fire for serious fraud reported during the referendum, are keeping up pressure on the opposition despite the latter’s failure so far to pull crowds big enough to threaten their hold on power. Opposition leaders will make on Friday another attempt to mobilize greater public support for an anti-government “revolution” in the country. But most observers are skeptical about their chances of success.
Stepan Safarian, a senior analyst at the opposition-linked Armenian Center for National and International Studies, suggested that only an unpopular solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would prompt Armenians to take to the streets in huge numbers.
“The mood in the country is far from revolutionary,” agreed Karine Nalchajian, a well-known Armenian psychologist. “I just don’t see how our people can be galvanized with the prospect of a ‘colored’ revolution.”
Aleksandr Iskandarian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, pointed to the weakness of the Armenian opposition. “Revolution is not taking place because the government is weak too,” he said. “The course of the referendum and the ensued government actions show that the current authorities are not self-confident. A self-confident regime would not behave like this.”