By Tatevik Lazarian
The Armenian authorities used “excessive” force to suppress last year’s post-election protests in Yerevan and failed conduct an impartial investigation into the unrest, a leading international human rights organization said on Wednesday.
In a 64-page report, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed the deadly clashes between security forces and opposition protesters that occurred on March 1, 2008 and the ensuing arrests and trials of opposition members and supporters.
“It is clear from multiple accounts that at various times police deployed excessive use of force, beating demonstrators who were not behaving aggressively, and some of the police use of firearms appears to have been indiscriminate or disproportionate,” said the report. “The fact that police were themselves under attack at times does not excuse those incidents where their own use of force was excessive.”
The HRW was particularly critical of the “overly aggressive” police actions against thousands of opposition supporters who barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office on March 1 hours after the opposition tent camp in the city’s Liberty Square.
“While the main demonstration continued peacefully behind the barricades, a group of protestors began attacking the police, and a number of the fatalities seem to have occurred as a result,” read its report. “Whereas some shootings appear to have occurred when the police were under direct attack, it appears police also shot at protestors deliberately and indiscriminately in circumstances where there is no evidence that lethal force was justified.”
“The Armenian authorities' response to the March 1 events has been one-sided,” added the report. “While they have investigated, prosecuted, and convicted dozens of opposition members, sometimes in flawed and politically motivated trials, for organizing the demonstration and participating in violent disorder, they have not prosecuted a single representative of the authorities for excessive use of force.”
The respected watchdog urged Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General to launch a credible inquiry and determine “whether law enforcement officials acted within limits set in national and international law for crowd control.” “This investigation should also cover the allegations of ill-treatment of people detained in connection with their participation in the March 1 events,” it said.
The Armenian authorities insist that the clashes were provoked by the opposition and its top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, with the aim of toppling the government by force. The opposition strongly denies the coup allegations.
Representatives of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) were quick to reject the HRW report. Samvel Nikoyan, chairman of a special parliamentary commission investigating the March 2008 violence, called it “one-sided” and accused the watchdog of pursuing “political objectives.”
“They blame only the authorities for all the casualties,” Nikoyan said. “Where did they get that information from? The circumstances of the deaths have still not been cleared up by the investigation.”
Eduard Sharmazanov, the chief HHK spokesman, slammed Human Rights Watch for suggesting that the root cause of the unrest were “deficiencies and manipulations in Armenia's electoral processes that contribute to distrust in their fairness and doubts about their outcomes.” “To our foreign partners, I will say that the February 19 presidential election in Armenia took place in accordance with international standards, and that was stated by all observer missions,” he said.