Robert Chakhoyan endured hours of beating in Armenian police custody but he does not have much of a grudge against his tormentors. He is remarkably composed when describing scenes of torture and pools of blood at a police station in Yerevan where he and scores of other supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian were taken on March 1.
“Police officers are also human beings,” explains the 23-year-old university student. “Let them come to their senses and think about who they are supporting. They must not carry out every government order.”
Chakhoyan and his wife Naira were among more than 2,000 Ter-Petrosian supporters camped out in Yerevan’s Liberty Square since February 20, the day after Armenia’s disputed presidential election. Hundreds and possibly thousands of riot police, interior troops and other security units surrounded the tent camp at around of 6:30 a.m. on March 1. The square outside the city’s massive Opera House was cleared within 10-15 minutes. Overwhelmed by the onslaught, the protesters chaotically fled the scene only to be ambushed and attacked by more security forces deployed in adjacent streets. Eyewitnesses say the protesters were chased even hundreds of meters away from the square, suggesting that the purpose of the security operation was not only to disperse participants of the 11-day vigil but to beat, intimidate and arrest as many of them as possible.
The violence in and outside Liberty Square essentially set the stage for a much bloodier drama that unfolded in another location in the city center, a major street intersection outside the Yerevan municipality and the French and Russian embassies, just hours later. Hundreds of angry people began gathering there later in the morning. Riot police tried to disperse them as well but met with fierce resistance and left the scene in the afternoon as the hardcore Ter-Petrosian supporters were joined by thousands of other Armenians furious with the police actions.
Witness accounts of police brutality might explain the ferocity with which they fought back a late-night police onslaught from one of the streets leading to the mayor’s office. Braving automatic gunfire that left at least seven of their comrades dead, they confronted security forces with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails and sent the latter fleeing the street in disarray. It took a military intervention and a state of emergency to force Ter-Petrosian to end the deadliest street protest in Armenia’s history.
“In essence, the people rose up spontaneously and the authorities didn’t expect that,” says Samson Ghazarian, one of Ter-Petrosian’s few prominent allies not arrested by the authorities so far. “I would say that most of those driven out of the Opera square didn’t go home and gathered near the French embassy.”
The official line, reaffirmed by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian last week, is that law-enforcement officers never intended to break up Ter-Petrosian’s unsanctioned sit-in in Liberty Square and that they simply wanted to confiscate firearms and ammunition allegedly stashed in the square. The police, Sarkisian said, used force only after the protesters ignored warnings not to resist the search.
Like many other tent campers, Chakhoyan claims to have not heard any warnings. “All I heard was, ‘Guys, attack them,’” he tells RFE/RL. “They started hitting us, we hit back and then tried to retreat. But they were already surrounding us.”
“No arrests were made in the square. People were arrested outside the square,” he says.
Chakhoyan says he somehow managed to sneak out of the square with his wife, catch a taxi and drive her to a friend’s apartment before spotting and joining a large group of fleeing oppositionists near the Yerevan State Circus, about two kilometers away from Liberty Square. Moments later they were surrounded by about a dozen police vehicles.
“Ten to fifteen of us managed to escape to a nearby courtyard,” he says. “We got in an apartment building, walked upstairs and asked residents to give us refuge. Half of us were let in, while the others, myself included, walked up to the roof. We got out of there at around 8 a.m., thinking that the police are gone.
“I saw two injured people downstairs. One of them had a broken arm and foot, the other serious wounds on his head. A resident of the building brought a bandage and cotton wool so I could provide first medical aid. We then put one of the wounded in a yellow car that took him to hospital.”
“As I bandaged the other man’s head, police came and arrested all of us,” adds the father of one.
The oppositionists were taken to the headquarters of the police department of Yerevan’s central Kentron district. “All of us were beaten up in both the police car and the police station,” Chakhoyan recounts calmly. “They hit me in the legs, the head, the sides and other parts of my body. I asked them not to hit me in the abdomen because it bleeds. I also asked them not to touch my head because my eyes had been operated on. But they kept hitting the same parts of the body on purpose.”
According to Chakhoyan, Kentron policemen were anxious not to leave traces of violence on his and other detainees’ bodies, putting books on their backs, stomachs and sides before hitting them with truncheons. The “insulation,” as the young man discovered, prevents bruises but does not reduce pain. “As they beat us, they yelled, ‘You Levon supporters, who do you think you are to hold illegal rallies and defy us? Don’t you know that Serzh won [the election?]’” he says.
Chakhoyan becomes more emotional when describing the experiences of other opposition supporters brought to the Kentron police long before the outbreak of the deadly clashes in Yerevan. “At around 10 o’clock in the morning, I saw a bleeding young man brought over to the police station,” he says. “He lay on the floor and they dragged him from his feet to the registration desk. The guy was convulsing in shock. No police officer would approach him. I said, ‘Let me help him, I can do that, I’ve worked for the rescue squad of the Armenian Red Cross.’ But they refused, saying, ‘You bastard, stay where you are and don’t move, we know what to do.’
“But I said, ‘If this guy dies, you will have to answer for that. So let me help him before it’s too late.’”
The officers relented. “I put him in an anti-shock position, pulled his tongue back and gave him water,” Chakhoyan says, adding that an ambulance arrived shortly afterwards to take away the young man and three other beaten detainees.
“There was also a badly beaten teenage boy,” continues Chakhoyan. “He was 14 at most. I saw him sitting in a corner. Blood was gushing from his eyes and forehead.”
“If you entered the Kentron police headquarters at that moment, you would see blood all over its white tiled floor and even on the walls. The floor turned red,” he says.
After nearly two hours of interrogation Chakhoyan was transported to the police department of the southern Shengavit district. He was kept there without a charge and released three days later.
“Nobody beat me at the Shengavit police station,” he says appreciatively. “They treated me in a much more respectful way. They fed me and gave cigarettes.”
Meanwhile, Naira Chakhoyan too got caught as she looked for her husband on March 2. “I walked past a police van parked at a bus stop near the railway station,” she says. “There were middle-aged policemen inside it, and I saw one of them pointing at me and saying, ‘This tramp was also there, catch her too.’”
Younger officers quickly obliged and took her to the Kentron police station which Naira says was packed with beaten men. “I stood by the wall and every passing policeman would hit and swear at me,” she says.
Naira was kept there until midnight. “They didn’t give any explanations,” she says. “Instead, they were mocking us, saying, ‘Hey, didn’t Levon promise to take care of you? Why isn’t he doing that? Why did you rally for him?’” Some officers, according to her, chanted Prime Minister Sarkisian’s election campaign motto, “Forward, Armenia!” in the process.
(Photolur photo: Riot police guard Liberty Square shortly after it was cleared of protesters on March 1.)