By Hovannes Shoghikian
Despite facing police pressure overnight to give up their hunger strike, several veterans of the Karabakh war continued their action at a military cemetery in Yerevan Thursday protesting what they view as the Armenian government’s readiness for unilateral territorial concessions in the long-running dispute with Azerbaijan.
A police task force had been sent to Yerablur the previous night to disrupt the announced three-day nonstop action staged by about a dozen former combatants in the 1991-1994 war between Karabakh Armenian defense groups and Azerbaijani armed forces.
The main demands of the protesters is that Armenia should formally recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as its integral part and give up its intentions to withdraw from several Azerbaijan districts surrounding the Armenian enclave that have been controlled by Karabakh forces since the end of hostilities in 1994.
The protesters have also demanded that the authorities should stop ‘political persecutions’ against opposition activists and supporters among whom are also a number of prominent Karabakh war veterans currently jailed for their alleged roles in the post-election clashes earlier this year.
Meruzhan Harutiunian from Vanadzor told RFE/RL on Thursday morning that ‘red-bereted’ police arrived at Yerablur on five vehicles at around 10.00 pm the previous night to confiscate their tents and scuttle the action, motivating that its participants defiled the sacred place where hundreds of Armenian military heroes and fallen soldiers rest in peace.
“We ourselves had fought for this sacred place and all who are in graves here were our companions-in-arms,” Harutiunian said.
“We had to give up our action following police demands,” he said, adding that they meant to gather again in the morning.
The area, however, remained under a heavy police cordon in the morning. Two of the protesters were accompanied to the nearest police precinct where, according to their own account, the local police chief tried to convince them to discontinue their action. The police, they said, also returned their tents and items confiscated the previous night.
Some of the action participants, however, refused to yield to police demands.
One of them, Vartan Malkhasian, a former field commander from Armenia’s northern province of Tavush, said he was determined to proceed with the hunger strike at the same venue.
“We had originally decided to stay at Yerablur, and I want to remain committed to our decision,” Malkhasian told RFE/RL.
Since 1988, Yerablur, located on a hilltop in the outskirts of Yerevan, has been the resting place for soldiers who lost their lives during the Karabakh war.
Armenia’s leading human rights activist confirmed that citizens were free to stage their protest at their chosen venue and called the police demands inconsistent with the law. “It is in itself a violation of the law to prohibit actions that in fact do not violate any law,” Mikael Danielian, the head of the Armenian Helsinki Association, said in an RFE/RL interview. “I think the police action is totally illegal.”
Meanwhile, the number of participants in the veteran protest has been growing throughout the day on Thursday. A group of veterans from Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri had reportedly joined their fellow freedom fighters at Yerablur by mid-afternoon.
A representative of Armenia’s ombudsman also reportedly visited the site. After talking to police officials, he reassured the hunger-strikers that they had the right to continue their action at the cemetery.