By Hovannes Shoghikian, Ruben Meloyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian police stepped up on Wednesday daily detentions of opposition supporters who have been gathering and strolling on a street in downtown Yerevan since the lifting of the state of emergency last Friday.
The police have been at pains to prevent more opposition rallies by circling the city’s Liberty Square and dispersing groups of opposition supporters gathering outside it. Hundreds of them staged daily silent walks along the newly built Northern Avenue leading to the square despite random detentions carried out by law-enforcement officers on the sport. The detainees are normally set free and fined after spending several hours in police custody.
The number of detentions rose drastically on Friday, with dozens of people, many of them women, bundled into police vehicles and driven away from the pedestrian avenue. “Where are you taking me?” yelled one elderly woman with a walking cane as she was led away by several policemen.
“Get in the car, we’ll go to the station and have a talk,” said one of them. “I can’t come with you, I need to take drugs,” insisted the woman. “I can come over to the police station tomorrow.”
Another, younger, woman screamed and burst into tears as she saw her husband seized by other policemen. “Where are you taking my husband,” she cried. “Don’t I have the right to walk with my husband? Please respond.”
“Madam, it was a mistake,” a plainclothes officers told her moments later. “Your husband will be let go now. Let us take you to him.” She refused.
Artyom Babayan, head of the criminal investigations unit at the Yerevan police, watched and defended the arrests. “Attempts to clear up things have such effects, whereas in a police station you can ask people questions, look at their identification documents and clarify whether they broke law,” he said.
Babayan claimed that the police detain supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian also because there could be “wanted criminals” among them. “We have information that such persons may commit crimes here,” he told RFE/RL. “Who says they may not? Can you guarantee that?”
“With such steps the authorities further escalate the situation,” countered Larisa Alaverdian, a parliament deputy from the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party who was also at the scene.
As was the case in the previous days, the detainees were taken to the police headquarters of Yerevan’s central Kentron district. Among them was Lyumdila Sargsian, the leader of the Social Democrat Hnchakian Party, one of two dozen opposition groups aligned to Ter-Petrosian. Speaking to RFE/RL by phone, she said there are about 50 opposition supporters inside the building. The police station’s door was locked and officers there could not be immediately reached for comment.
In the meantime, several dozen people, most of them friends and relatives of the detainees, gathered outside the building. They were joined by Alaverdian and other Zharangutyun parliamentarians who tried unsuccessfully to get in. “The police actions are absolutely illegal,” one of them, Zaruhi Postanjian, said.
Despite the end of emergency rule, rallies and other street protests in Yerevan remain effectively banned, with the authorities citing the need to prevent a repeat of the March 1 violent clashes in the capital. The police say any gathering of ten or more people amounts to a rally and can therefore be broken up.
The de facto ban was facilitated by amendments to Armenia’s law on public gatherings that was passed by the Armenian parliament last week. Ter-Petrosian and other opposition leaders say the amendments are unconstitutional.
The situation also remained tense on Wednesday in the Vanatur suburb of Hrazdan, a town about 50 kilometers north of Yerevan. Dozens of local residents gathered there for the third consecutive day to demand the release of Sasun Mikaelian, the local parliamentarian jailed and prosecuted on coup charges along with more than 100 other Ter-Petrosian loyalists.
The protest continued despite similar random detentions of their participants. The protesters, many of them schoolchildren, chanted “Sasun!” and “Freedom!” and law-enforcement officers led by the chief of the Hrazdan police, Avetik Abrahamian, urged them to disperse, saying that the rally is illegal. One of the protesters, Arshaluys Bozinian, claimed to have been on hunger strike since Monday.
Police officers also visited the Vanatur school and interrogated students in the principal’s office in an apparent effort to discourage them from attending the daily rallies with their parents. An RFE/RL correspondent was allowed to enter the room after one such interrogation conducted by Armen Markosian, head of the juvenile crime unit at the Hrazdan police. A 16-year-old boy questioned by Markosian was writing an explanation at that point.
“We are interviewing the children to find out why they skipped classes,” Markosian told RFE/RL. “We are obliged to warn the children not to be absent from the school.”
“The juvenile delinquency unit of the police is supposed to carry out such actions,” he said.
Angry parents who waited for their children in the school lobby disagreed. One of them, Samvel Ohanian, was furious with the police for questioning his 10-year-old son in his absence. “They did not inform me,” he said. “If the boy gets scared, who will answer for that? I declare that starting from tomorrow I won’t let any of my two children go to the school.”
“When our kids see a policeman, they get scared,” said Lusine Hayrapetian, another Vanatur resident. “This has never happened before.”
(Photo by Gagik Shamshian.)