By Karine Kalantarian
Pro-government lawmakers openly questioned on Friday the official justification for the forcible dispersal of opposition protesters camped in Yerevan’s Liberty Square last February as it emerged that there were no fingerprints on weapons which the Armenian police claim to have found there.
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and his supporters built a tent camp and held non-stop demonstrations in the square following the February 19 presidential election which they believe was rigged in favor of establishment candidate Serzh Sarkisian. Riot police broke up the protest early on March 1, setting the stage for deadly clashes with thousands of protesters elsewhere in central Yerevan later in the day.
The Armenian government and law-enforcement bodies claim that the police decided to use force only after the protesters refused to let them search the square for weapons allegedly stashed by opposition leaders there. Senior police officials involved in the operation reiterated this version of events in their testimonies to an ad hoc commission of Armenia’s parliament investigating the post-election turmoil.
Suren Manukian, head of the forensic examinations department at the national police, was the latest law-enforcement official to testify before the commission. He said security forces confiscated three pistols, an unspecified number of hand grenades, “large quantities of ammunition,” as well as Molotov cocktails and iron bars.
“Specialists who inspected those objects found no usable fingerprints on them,” Manukian said, leading the commission chairman, Samvel Nikoyan, to wonder if the firearms can be used as incriminating evidence in the ongoing criminal investigation into what the authorities say was a coup plot hatched by Ter-Petrosian. “That is up to the investigating body to decide,” responded the police official.
“In essence, there is no proof of who that stuff belonged to,” Nikoyan commented before asking, “Could you please tell me what conclusion I should draw from this?” “That is beyond my responsibility,” replied Manukian.
Another commission member, Artsvik Minasian of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), explicitly stated that the weapons allegedly found in Liberty Square can not be used to substantiate the government accusations in court. “It was declared that huge quantities of weapons and ammunition were handed out [to protesters,] but forensic tests showed that the quantities were not huge,” he said. “And even assuming that they were handed out, they can not serve as evidence.”
“This seems to prove the theory that the police actions had elements of disproportionateness,” Minasian told RFE/RL. “This is my subjective view … As far as supporting evidence is concerned, the situation is quite sad.”
The official justification for the use of force has also been dismissed by Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman. “If fleeing demonstrators left guns behind them, then why is it that during their dispersal, which was accompanied by beatings and resistance, not a single gunshot was fired?” Harutiunian asked in an extensive report released in late April.