By Karine Kalantarian, Ruzanna Stepanian and Karine Simonian in Vanadzor
Armenian prosecutors charged a top opposition leader and arrested another prominent supporter of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian on Tuesday as part of the continuing government crackdown on the opposition that followed last month’s disputed presidential election.
Aram Sarkisian, the leader of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, was formally accused of attempting to “usurp state authority” and organizing unsanctioned street protests and “mass riots” in the wake of the February 19 election.
Similar charges were also leveled against dozens of other opposition leaders and activists arrested since the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between security forces and scores of Ter-Petrosian supporters protesting against official vote results. At least seven civilians and one police officer were killed in the violence.
Despite having played a larger role in the post-election protests than most of the detained oppositionists, Sarkisian was not taken into custody, with prosecutors only having him sign a pledge not to leave Armenia pending investigation.
Sarkisian told RFE/RL that he was notified of the accusations during a morning visit to the Special Investigative Service (SIS), a recently formed law-enforcement body which is part of Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General. He said he refused to give testimony in protest at what he considers to be a politically motivated case.
The outspoken oppositionist was already interrogated by SIS officials for several hours on Friday. He said afterwards that most of the questions they asked were “political in nature.” He said he insisted that the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition has acted in accordance with law and blamed the authorities for the violence.
The Armenian government and law-enforcement bodies say the March 1 clashes were part of Ter-Petrosian’s plot to use the presidential election for returning to power by illegal means. But they have so far refrained from arresting, charging or interrogating the opposition leader.
Sarkisian’s party is one of the largest and most influential of some two dozen opposition groups that rallied around Ter-Petrosian in the run-up to the presidential ballot. Many of its senior members are currently in jail or in hiding.
The case against Sarkisian was brought several hours after the arrest of Arshak Banuchian, deputy director of Matenadaran, Armenia’s famous institute of ancient manuscripts. Although not affiliated with any opposition party, Banuchian openly backed Ter-Petrosian’s presidential bid and took part in the ex-president’s rallies. During one of those rallies, he read out a statement signed by a large group of Matenadaran employees urging Armenians to vote for Ter-Petrosian.
Ter-Petrosian himself had worked at Matenadaran before beginning his political career and becoming Armenia’s first president in 1991.
According to Ter-Petrosian’s office, SIS investigators searched Banuchian’s Yerevan apartment late Monday before placing him under arrest early in the morning. A spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General confirmed the arrest but said the scholar has not been formally charged yet.
Meanwhile, several dozen residents of a village near the central town of Hrazdan, rallied for the second consecutive day to demand the release of Sasun Mikaelian, a local parliamentarian and prominent Ter-Petrosian backer also arrested as part of the crackdown. Local police dispersed the small crowd, detaining several protesters and one journalists in the process. All of them were set free later on Tuesday.
“They said that if they spot us rallying again they will subject us to administrative punishment,” Aleta Mikaelian, one of the detained villagers, told RFE/RL. “But we will continue to fight to the end.”
Karine Harutiunian, a correspondent for the opposition newspaper “Zhamanak Yerevan” said she was taken to the Hrazdan police headquarters and spent one hour there explaining her presence in the village of Vanatur, Sasun Mikaelian’s place of residence. She said police officers tried to force her to delete photographs of the protest from her small digital camera.
Also covering the protest were two journalists working for another opposition paper, “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun.” Correspondent Taguhi Tovmasian and photographer Gagik Shamshian told RFE/RL that they took refuge in a village house after being harassed by plainclothes police officers. “They wanted to take away Taguhi’s recorder and my camera,” said Shamshian.
The two journalists telephoned Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, from their hideout and asked for help. Members of Harutiunian’s staff promptly drove to Vanatur and escorted them back to Yerevan.
In a related development, a court in the northern Lori region on Tuesday fined a Ter-Petrosian proxy 500,000 drams ($1,600) for obstructing the work of a local election commission on polling day. Lori’s chief prosecutor, Karen Shahbazian, claimed that the proxy, Sofia Kalantarian, “distracted” commission members from performing their duties and unduly interfered in the voting. Speaking at a court hearing in the regional capital Vanadzor, Shahbazian said she also “disseminated baseless doubts and speculations” about the freedom and fairness of the election.
Kalantarian denied the accusations, saying the commission itself hindered her work. Her lawyer called the case a “big blow to the already endangered democracy in Armenia.” The court dismissed their statements.
Another Ter-Petrosian proxy in Lori was fined on the same charge late last month.
(Photolur photo: Aram Sarkisian.)