Two more close associates of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian were arrested on Monday as the Armenian authorities continued their unprecedented crackdown on the opposition resulting from last month’s disputed presidential election. A senior U.S. diplomat, meanwhile, warned them against jailing the opposition leader as well.
The latest detainees are Aleksandr Arzumanian, a former foreign minister and Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign manager, and Ararat Zurabian, chairman of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh). Their lawyer, Hovik Arsenian, said they are likely to be charged with seeking to “usurp power” in the wake of the February 19 election.
Arsenian spoke to RFE/RL by phone from the headquarters of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) where his clients were interrogated and kept in custody as of late evening. He dismissed as baseless and politically motivated the criminal cases brought against these and other prominent opposition politicians close to Ter-Petrosian.
Arzumanian’s and Zurabian’s detention raised to at least 86 the number of Ter-Petrosian supporters jailed in the past two weeks. Among them are two opposition members of parliament. Two other parliamentarians stripped of their immunity from prosecution have gone into hiding.
According to a spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, Sona Truzian, 73 oppositionists have already been formally charged with plotting a coup d’etat, organizing and participating in “mass riots” and other grave crimes. The charges mainly stem from the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan between riot police and thousands of opposition supporters demanding a re-run of what they see as a rigged election.
“The political orientation of these individuals doesn’t matter to the investigating body,” Truzian said, referring to the detainees. “Investigators are bringing accusations against those people who organized and took part in mass riots and other events aimed at undermining constitutional order.”
The crackdown, which is not confined to Yerevan, is not letting up despite the international community’s growing calls for the lifting of the state of emergency in the capital and a dialogue between the Armenian authorities and the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition.
"We don't believe that further crackdown, further arrests, are the right way to go,” Kurt Volker, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state, for European and Eurasian Affairs, told RFE/RL from Washington on Monday. “We think that what needs to be done is to move toward lifting the state of emergency, assuring freedom of the media, assuring the freedom of assembly, assuring the operation of political parties, so that Armenia can walk back from this political crisis.”
Also expressing concern at the wave of arrests was Joseph Pennington, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan. “We have made clear to the Armenian authorities that while we certainly recognize the right and the obligation of the authorities to arrest and prosecute those who were involved directly in violent activities last weekend, there is a distinction that needs to be made between those people on the one hand and those who may have expressed views that were bothersome to the authorities,” Pennington told RFE/RL.
“We strongly discourage those kinds of arrests that could be interpreted as political arrests and think that would not contribute to stability and reduction in tensions,” he said.
Pennington also warned that the authorities will only heighten the post-election tensions in Armenia if they follow through on their threats to arrest and prosecute Ter-Petrosian. “We do not think that is a step that would help to ease the situation here,” he said. “We don’t think it would be the right way. We don’t think it would useful. We think it would probably increase tensions more than anything else.”
President Robert Kocharian said last week that “many in Armenia” believe that Ter-Petrosian too should be punished for the violent standoff that left at least seven protesters and one police officer dead. Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian likewise did not rule out the possibility of the ex-president’s arrest, saying that the opposition actions were “managed from one center.”
Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian told the AFP news agency on Monday that law-enforcment authorities “already have sufficient evidence” to prosecute Ter-Petrosian. "The investigation will show which exact charges will be brought against him,” Danielian said. “He has crossed from the political sphere to the criminal sphere."
Ter-Petrosian has been under effective house arrest since the violent break-up earlier on March 1 of his supporters’ non-stop sit-in in Yerevan’s Liberty Square.
(Photolur photo: Aleksandr Arzumanian.)