By Ruzanna Stepanian and Emil Danielyan
Thousands of angry opposition supporters again gathered in Yerevan and clashed with police on Saturday as their leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, pledged to continue to challenge the official results of Armenia’s presidential election.
The rally broke out spontaneously on a street in downtown Yerevan just hours after security forces broke up a non-stop vigil kept by Ter-Petrosian supporters in the city’s Liberty Square. Hundreds of riot police and interior troops, backed by water cannons, were rushed to the street outside the French Embassy to try to disperse the crowd. The protesters chanting “Freedom!” and “Levon!” confronted them with sticks and stones.
Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, and an opposition parliamentarian, Anahit Bakhshian, were at the scene, trying unsuccessfully to prevent the clash. Despite police warnings about “unpredictable” consequences, the number of protesters grew rapidly early in the afternoon. Law-enforcement bodies cordoned off the entire area to keep the crowd from moving to Liberty Square and key government buildings.
Many of the protesters appeared to have participated in the overnight vigil in the square. Some bore traces of violence on their heads and faces. Ter-Petrosian aides hundreds of people were injured during the break-up of the non-stop protest.
Ter-Petrosian, meanwhile, held a news conference in his house outside the city center where he claimed to have been forcibly taken from Liberty Square by security officers led by the chief of President Robert Kocharian’s security service. He said they banned him from leaving the house and receiving visitors. However, security officers deployed outside Ter-Petrosian’s home insisted that he is not under house arrest.
“I don’t understand how the international community could tolerate what happened last night,” Ter-Petrosian told journalists. “I have no doubts that the people won’t come to terms with this reality. We have a new people who have ridden themselves of fear. In the past five months we have created a new society, civil society”
“Even if Serzh Sarkisian miraculously becomes president, I can’t imagine how that president will rule these people,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian said he and his allies, some of whom arrested by the police, will continue to stage street protests despite the crackdown. He argued that such protests will be lawful because the authorities have not declared a state of emergency.
“We will use all means stemming from law,” said the ex-president. “We will demand permissions for rallies, marches, pickets. Regardless of whether they give [such permission] we have the right to organize our events as we have done before because there is no state of emergency.
“We will come out. Let them beat us again. Let them arrest us again.”
“Rallies may erupt spontaneously,” added Ter-Petrosian. “We must control and manage them. If I am allowed to get out of here, I will naturally be with the people.”
Ter-Petrosian’s campaign office said at least 11 opposition activists, including former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, were detained in outside Liberty Square earlier in the day. It said six other activists remain unaccounted for.