By Emil Danielyan, Ruben Meloyan and Karine Kalantarian
Police cordoned off major squares in downtown Yerevan and used force to stop about 2,000 opposition supporters marching through the city center following the lifting of a 20-day state of emergency on Friday.
The protest began spontaneously outside the city’s Liberty Square, the scene of post-election rallies held by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, and ended in scuffles between riot police and some demonstrators four hours later. At least two of them were detained.
The crowd was confronted and dispersed after silently marching past the site of the March 1 clashes between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters protesting against the official results of the disputed February 19 presidential election. At least eight people were killed in the violent confrontation, leading outgoing President Robert Kocharian to declare emergency rule and order troops into the Armenian capital.
Some protesters lit candles and held carnations in memory of the dead, while others carried pictures of some of more than 100 people arrested in the ongoing government crackdown on the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. Several dozen activists stood silently in a candlelight vigil outside the Armenian ministries of foreign affairs and energy.
“We are mourning the deaths of innocent people and also want to express our discontent with what is happening in our country,” Ani, a young university lecturer, told RFE/RL. “The state did not even express condolences to the victims’ families.”
“These criminal authorities did not even call a day of national mourning for the victims, and so we decided to remember them with this action,” said Narek, a university student.
The 19-year-old said he took part in the March 1 unrest and is ready to attend more street protests planned by Ter-Petrosian. “I can’t stop thinking about the events of March 1,” he said. “A few bullets flew over my head on that day. I stayed alive miraculously.”
Liberty Square, guarded by army soldiers throughout the state of emergency, was occupied by busloads of police and interior troops as pockets of opposition supporters, most of them women, began gathering just outside it at around 3 p.m. local time. Senior police officers told them to leave the sprawling area and cross the streets surrounding it, citing a continuing government ban on rallies.
“Ten people standing together means a rally, and I have the right to disperse a rally,” Major-General Sasha Afian, deputy chief of Armenia’s Police Service, told a group of angry women. “So please go to Northern Avenue [opposite the square.] Nobody will touch you there.”
“You’ve suppressed the people for 20 days,” one of them complained to Afian. “When will you stop doing that?”
“We have come here to light candles for the dead,” said another. “Why don’t they let us do that?”
The women chanted “Freedom!” and “Shame!” as police officers wearing riot gear slowly pushed them away. Similar scenes could be observed on other approaches to the square.
A scuffle broke out when several police officers armed with rubber truncheons and electric-shock guns chased and tried to arrest a young man. Several women stood in the policemen’s way and enabled the man to escape. One woman was toppled to the ground as a result.
The violence ended after the personal intervention of Major-General Nerses Nazarian, chief of the Yerevan police who also at the scene. “Please, calm down,” Nazarian told the protesters mostly grouped in Northern Avenue. He also asked them to move further away from the square.
Shortly afterwards, the crowd, lacking any visible organizers, walked down the newly built boulevard to the city’s main Republic Square and on to the street junction outside the Yerevan municipality, the site of the March 1 clashes. A granite pedestal from which opposition leaders spoke on that day was surrounded by riot police.
The protesters then marched back towards Liberty Square via another Yerevan thoroughfare only to be confronted by more numerous police units. They dispersed after a brief clash with security forces using truncheons and electric-shock guns.
It was not clear how many opposition supporters were detained in the process. One passerby told RFE/RL that she saw more than a dozen men forced into a police van and driven away. Police spokesmen could not be immediately reached for comment.
An RFE/RL correspondent witnessed one man forcibly brought into the police headquarters of Yerevan’s central Kentron district shortly afterwards. The police confirmed that they also detained another man earlier in the day. The man, Arakel Semirjian, is a nephew of Ter-Petrosian and one of a dozen Armenian Foreign Ministry officials who were fired last month for condemning their government’s conduct of the presidential election.
Eyewitnesses said Semirjian was spotted and called up by a senior police officer as he sat in a café adjacent to Liberty Square with several friends. They said he obeyed the order and was bundled into a police truck moments later. The reasons for the arrest were not immediately clear.
“If people provoke something, they will be punished,” Nazarian, the Yerevan police chief, told RFE/RL when asked about the incident. “There is no way he could be taken away from the café.”
(Photolur photo: A police officer confronts protesters with an eletric-shock gun.)