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By Emil Danielyan
The U.S. State Department has strongly criticized the Armenian government’s handling of the 2008 presidential election and its ensuing crackdown on the opposition involving mass arrests of opposition members and supporters.

In an annual human rights report released late Wednesday, the department also deplored what it called “severe” restrictions on freedom of assembly that were imposed by the authorities following the post-election unrest in Yerevan.

“The government's human rights record deteriorated significantly during the year, with authorities and their agents committing numerous human rights abuses, particularly in connection with the presidential elections and the government's suppression of demonstrations that followed,” said the 67-page report. “Authorities denied citizens the right to change their government freely and citizens were subject to arrest, detention, and imprisonment for their political activities.”

“Authorities used force, at times lethal, to disperse political demonstrations. Authorities used harassment and intrusive application of bureaucratic measures to intimidate and retaliate against government opponents,” it added.

The unusually extensive document gave a detailed account of the dramatic developments that followed the February 2008 election. It described as “inconsistent” government accounts of the violent dispersal early on March 1 of hundreds of supporters of opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian camped in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. The break-up of the ten-day protest triggered deadly clashes between opposition protesters and security forces elsewhere in the city center later in the day, resulting in the imposition of a three-week state of emergency in the Armenian capital.

“Many of the individuals arrested in connection with the March 1 events were detained on seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges,” the State Department said. “Authorities justified the arrests as necessary to prevent attempts to initiate mass disorders and usurp power by extraconstitutional means. In the majority of cases, persons were released without charge after several hours' detention.”

About 60 Ter-Petrosian supporters remain in jail. The Armenian opposition regards them as political prisoners, a characterization rejected by the government. The latter claims that the Yerevan clashes were part of an opposition attempt to illegally seize power. Opposition leaders maintain that they only organized peaceful protests against what they see as a falsification of election results.

The State Department called the Armenian presidential vote “significantly flawed.” “Problems included favorable treatment of the government's candidate, instances of ballot stuffing, vote-buying, multiple voting, voter intimidation, violence against and intimidation of opposition commission members, proxies and reporters, restriction of their civil and political rights, and suspiciously high turnout figures,” it said.

The report pointed out that only Ter-Petrosian supporters were prosecuted and jailed for violent incidents reported before and during the election. “Most progovernment supporters and proxies saw similar charges against them either go unpunished or they received milder punishment than Ter-Petrosian’s supporters,” it said.

The State Department went on to deplore widespread police brutality, which local and Western human rights organization have long regarded as the most common form of human rights abuses in Armenia. “Police beat pretrial detainees and failed to provide due process in some cases,” it said. “The National Security Service (NSS) and the national police force acted with impunity for alleged human rights abuses. Authorities engaged in arbitrary arrest and detention.”

The report also denounced an effective government ban on opposition demonstrations that was imposed following the March 1 events and was eased in June 2008. “In practice, however, authorities continued to severely restrict freedom of assembly through an arbitrary interpretation of the new law and denied approximately 100 opposition applications to hold rallies at requested venues from March through the end of the year,” it said.

The report further accused the authorities of imposing “severe” restrictions on press freedom and noted increased instances of violence against Armenian journalists. “During the postelection protests, reporters were subjected to widespread harassment and intimidation,” it said.
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