By Hovannes Shoghikian and Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian police insisted on Friday that they never intended to disperse opposition supporters camped out in Yerevan’s Liberty Square and used force only after meeting with fierce resistance from the protesters early on March 1.
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and his supporters set up 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 in the morning, setting the stage for deadly clashes with thousands of protesters elsewhere in central Yerevan later on March 1.
Colonel Hovannes Tamamian, chief of the police’s Directorate General of Criminal Investigations, repeated the official version of events whereby law-enforcement forces only wanted to search the square for weapons allegedly stashed by opposition leaders there. “The purpose of the operative action on the morning of March 1 was to detect weapons, ammunition and other objects among those who gathered [in the square,]” he told a news conference. “There was no intention to disperse them.”
“Given the existence of the crowd, we concentrated additional forces there. But they did not at first participate [in the clashes.] They stepped in only after the incident between us and the people,” said Tamamian.
The official theory has been rejected by the opposition and local human rights groups. Some pro-government members sitting on a special parliamentary commission investigating the worst street violence in Armenia’s history also questioned it in August after it emerged that there are no fingerprints on weapons which the police claim to have found there. The lawmakers said those weapons can therefore not be used to substantiate the government accusations in court.
The official justification for the use of force has also been dismissed by Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman. Harutiunian on Friday also criticized the trials of dozens of Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested following the unrest. He said his office has monitored many of those trials and found that prosecutors failed to come up with compelling proof of their accusations. Despite that, local courts always sided with the prosecutors, he added.
Seven of the most prominent of the opposition detainees, including three parliament deputies and Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign chief, are scheduled to go on trial on December 19 on charges of plotting a coup d’etat and organizing the “mass disturbances” for that purpose.
Harutiunian reserved judgment on the highly controversial case at this point. “We don’t want to meddle in the judicial process,” he said. “Let us not prevent the prosecution and the defense lawyers from making their cases and let us see how the judge behaves at that trial and only then express opinions.”