By Ruzanna Stepanian
Law-enforcement authorities have identified security officers, who shot and killed opposition protesters during the post-election clashes in Yerevan, and are now determining whether the use of lethal force was justified, a senior investigator said on Tuesday.
At least eight civilians and two interior troops were killed as security forces tried to disperse thousands of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian who barricaded themselves at a vast street intersection outside the Yerevan mayor’s office on March 1. The clashes, the worst in Armenia’s history, followed the break-up earlier in the day of Ter-Petrosian’s non-stop demonstrations in the city’s Liberty Square against official results of the February 19 disputed presidential election.
According to the Special Investigative Service (SIS), a law-enforcement agency subordinated to Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General, three of the civilian victims were killed by tear gas grenades fired by riot police from a very shory distance. Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian claimed earlier this month that the investigators still do not know which police officers mishandled the riot equipment.
Neither Hovsepian nor any other law-enforcement official has so far publicly commented on the circumstances in which the five other civilians died. In an interview with RFE/RL, Vahagn Harutiunian, a senior SIS official leading the controversial official inquiry into the unrest, said the investigators have finally identified and questioned officers who shot them.
“All of them are known,” he said. “All of them have been interrogated. The investigation is continuing.”
Citing “the interests of the investigation,” Harutiunian refused to reveal the identity of the shooters or specify which security agency they work for.
“Use of firearms [by a law-enforcement officer] is not necessarily a crime,” said Harutiunian. “If firearms are used for preventing crimes or other legitimate purposes, that is naturally not punishable by criminal law.
“But that doesn’t mean we rule out the possibility of an unjustified use of firearms. The matter is being investigated.”
The Armenian government has justified the use of lethal force against the opposition protesters, saying that it thereby prevented a coup d’etat allegedly plotted by Ter-Petrosian and his associates. It has claimed that some of the protesters carried weapons, pointing to the deaths of two interior troop servicemen in the unprecedented street battles. However, none of more than 100 opposition members and supporters arrested following the clashes was charged in connection with those deaths.
The Ter-Petrosian-led opposition dismisses the coup allegations, insisting that the authorities brutally suppressed the massive post-election demonstrations in Yerevan. It considers former President Robert Kocharian the main mastermind of the “slaughter.”
The official version of events has also been questioned by Armenia’s human rights ombudsman and international human rights bodies such as the Council of Europe. They have repeatedly urged the government to allow an independent inquiry involving foreign experts.