A senior U.S. official has condemned as “harsh and brutal” the Armenian government’s post-election crackdown on the opposition and expressed serious concern about the continuing mass arrests of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
"The violence really was deplorable. It seems clear that the reaction by the government was harsh and brutal," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told The Associated Press Monday, referring to the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters.
Washington had until then avoided criticizing the use of force against opposition protesters that left at least seven of them dead. A senior U.S. diplomat said earlier on Monday that the Armenian authorities had to forcibly “restore order” after the demonstration turned violent.
Bryza’s comments came just three days after he held talks in Yerevan with outgoing President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian and Ter-Petrosian in a bid to defuse Armenia’s worst political crisis in nearly a decade. He pressed the Armenian leaders to lift the state of emergency in the capital and the resulting severe restrictions on press freedom.
Kocharian has made it clear, however, that emergency rule will remain in force at least until March 20. His security apparatus is continuing its unprecedented crackdown on the opposition, with dozens of more opposition figures, including Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign manager, arrested in recent days.
"It is not only frustrating that the government has imposed restrictions on independent media and left in place a state of emergency, but also that it has stepped up arrests of opposition leaders," Bryza said. "It is crucial that the arrest of opposition figures stops."
The crackdown also prompted concern from one of the two main Armenian lobbying organizations in the United States. “The Armenian Assembly of America continues to be concerned about the restrictions imposed by President Robert Kocharian's Administration, including respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, as well as ongoing arrests and detentions,” the AAA said in a rare statement critical of the Yerevan government. “We urge that the basic civil rights protections be upheld.”
“We are also keenly aware that the political divisions that have been created in Armenia have already begun to impact the Diaspora,” warned the AAA. “We continue to receive calls from across the country from supporters and friends alike who have voiced their strong concerns and expectations.”
At least 84 Ter-Petrosian supporters, including two parliament deputies, remained in custody as of late Monday. According to the Office of the Prosecutor-General, 77 of them have already been formally charged with plotting a coup d’etat, organizing “mass riots” and other grave crimes.
Ter-Petrosian’s campaign headquarters reported several more arrests on Tuesday. An official there, Armen Khachatrian, said the latest detainees include Roman Navasardian, Ter-Petrosian’s campaign chief in the southeastern town of Kapan, and Rafik Asrian, head of the local chapter of the Yerkrapah Union of Armenian war veterans.
Khachatrian told RFE/RL the two men were detained by the police late on their way to Yerevan before being driven back to Kapan on Monday night. “Based on their role in our election campaign, we have reason to believe that they will soon be brought to the National Security Service headquarters in Yerevan,” he said. “Our law-enforcement authorities are operating in such a primitive way that it is easy to calculate who will be taken where and charged with what.”
Also arrested on Monday were Ter-Petrosian’s national campaign manager, Aleksandr Arzumanian, and the chairman of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), Ararat Zurabian.
According to Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, the authorities are preparing to lay criminal charges against Ter-Petrosian as well. "Today law-enforcement agencies conducting the investigation already have sufficient evidence to instigate criminal action against Levon Ter-Petrosian," Danielian told AFP news agency on Monday.
Asked to comment on this statement, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General said, “The investigative body will make appropriate decisions based on evidence obtained by it. I can’t say who will be charged tomorrow or the day after.”
A spokesman for Ter-Petrosian, for his part, said the former president is undaunted by the prospect of his arrest. “This criminal regime is prepared for anything,” Arman Musinian told RFE/RL. “We will continue our struggle in any case.”
(Photolur photo: Bryza pictured with top U.S. Embassy officials during his visit to Yerevan last week.)