By Karine Kalantarian
A senior pro-government lawmaker accused the national police on Friday of not cooperating with and even hindering a parliamentary inquiry into Armenia’s deadly post-election violence.
Samvel Nikoyan, chairman of the ad hoc parliament commission tasked with investigating the unrest, said the Police Service has failed to provide sufficient information regarding the use of lethal force against thousands of opposition protesters who barricaded themselves in central Yerevan on March 1.
The commission, which is dominated by parliamentarians affiliated with Armenia’s four governing parties, has questioned several senior police officials on details of the police operation that left least eight civilians and two interior troops dead. It asked the police for additional information in a letter sent on August 19.
According to Nikoyan, the police re-addressed virtually all of the questions contained in that letter to state prosecutors and their Special Investigative Service (SIS), which is conducting the criminal investigation into what the Armenian authorities call an opposition attempt to stage a coup d’etat in the wake of the February 19 presidential election. One of those questions was about details of the firearms and riot gear used against supporters of opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian.
“We sent that letter ten days ago and this is all we have,” a frustrated Nikoyan told members of his commission. “The commission should not have waited for a totally useless response for ten days.”
“I believe that with such answers the commission can never achieve the objectives set before it,” he said.
In Nikoyan’s words, the police did not even agree to provide more detailed footage of the violent dispersal early on March 1 of Ter-Petrosian’s tent camp in Yerevan’s Liberty Square, which precipitated the deadly clashes later in the day. “They claim to have nothing except that wretched two-minute footage which was given to us [earlier,]” he said in disbelief.
During recent parliament hearings, Nikoyan and other members of his commission openly questioned the official justification for the heavy-handed dispersal of hundreds and possibly thousands of opposition supporters who were camped out in the square.
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 hoarded by opposition leaders there. It emerged earlier this month that the firearms which the police claim to have found there had no fingerprints on them, leading Nikoyan and some of his pro-government colleagues to declare that they can not be used in court.
Nikoyan’s commission, which is boycotted by the Armenian opposition, has yet to hold hearings on the more tragic events that unfolded outside the Yerevan mayor’s office later on March 1. Observers increasingly doubt that it will be able to complete its work and present its findings before the late-October deadline set by the National Assembly.
Nikoyan hinted that he could ask the parliament to extend the commission’s mandate when he voiced support for a new, compromise format for a supposedly independent inquiry into the post-election unrest which was suggested recently by a senior official from the Council of Europe.
Visiting Yerevan in July, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, sounded skeptical about the Nikoyan-led commission’s ability to investigate the March 1 clashes in view of its deep mistrust by the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. Hammarberg proposed the creation of a new, smaller investigative body that would only collect key facts relating to the unrest and present them to the parliamentary panel. The latter would then make a “political evaluation” based on those facts, he said.
Nikoyan, who is a senior member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said now is the time to set up a “specialized group” of Armenian and foreign experts that would investigate the worst street violence in the country’s history in greater detail.
(Photolur photo: Samvel Nikoyan.)