By Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian government’s use of the armed forces in the suppression of opposition protests following the February 2008 presidential election was unconstitutional and therefore constituted a coup d’etat, opposition representatives charged on Wednesday.
Armenian army units rolled into central Yerevan on the night from March 1-2, 2008 following a declaration of a state of emergency by the outgoing President Robert Kocharian. The presidential decree came shortly after the outbreak of deadly clashes between security forces and supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian that barricaded themselves in the city center. Hundreds of soldiers backed by armored vehicles remained in the Armenian capital until the end of emergency rule three weeks later.
Two senior members of Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) said Kocharian’s orders to the military violated an article of the country’s constitution which stipulates that the president of the republic can use the army if Armenia is at war with another country or faces the threat of an external aggression. Speaking at a news conference, Levon Zurabian and Vladimir Karapetian, publicized video of a column of armored vehicles heading towards Yerevan from the northern city of Vanadzor.
They said the footage was filmed by Reuters news agency on March 1 hours before Kocharian declared a state of emergency in the capital. They said this proves that the authorities used the Yerevan clashes as a pretext for quelling the opposition protests with the help of the military.
“Given the fact that the use of the armed forces on March 1 contradicted the constitution and was therefore illegal, we state that the events of March 1 can be characterized as a coup d’etat,” said Zurabian.
According to Karapetian, an opposition group investigating the March 1 events has asked the state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, to look into this and other images of the army’s involvement in the unrest and ask the Constitutional Court to declare it unconstitutional. He said the purported evidence of that involvement has also been submitted to the independent Fact-Finding Group of Experts which is conducing a separate inquiry into the post-election violence.
The Armenian Defense Ministry denied the opposition allegations. In a statement issued later in the day, it said that army units moved into Yerevan only after the declaration of emergency rule and that their deployment did not violate the Armenian constitution. The statement cited another constitutional clause that allows the head of state to take “measures required by the situation” in the event of an “immediate threat to constitutional order.”
The ministry also said that the troops only consisted of soldiers serving in army detachments stationed in or around Yerevan and that unlike police units, they did not use force against any protesters.
(Photolur photo: Army soldiers patrol the site of the clashes on March 2, 2008.)