By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian police indicated on Friday that they will not try to disperse thousands of people who are expected to rally on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of the 2008 post-election clashes in Yerevan.
The main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) plans to rally supporters outside the Matenadaran institute of ancient manuscripts and then stage a march through the city despite the municipal authorities’ refusal to authorize the protest.
Major-General Alik Sargsian, chief of the national police, made clear that the police will not enforce the ban. “The police are very calm,” he said. “Nothing [bad] is expected on March 1. Our people understand everything.”
“We too will act like victims. We too suffered casualties, our people also died on that day,” Sargsian told a news conference, referring to the deaths of two police servicemen in the March 1, 2008 clashes with opposition supporters that barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office. The violence also left eight civilians dead.
Sargsian said the police will use force only in the event of “any violation of public order.” “But we are convinced that people will calmly gather, pay their respects [to the March 1 victims] and go home,” he said.
As the police chief spoke to journalists, the HAK issued a statement urging law-enforcement bodies to work together with the opposition alliance in making sure that the upcoming rally is peaceful. Levon Zurabian, a senior HAK representative, said the organizers will take “unprecedented measures to maintain order during rally” and warned the police against taking “provocative actions.” “We are urging the police to cooperate, not to create problems, not to provoke the people,” he said.
Zurabian claimed that the police have so far avoided such cooperation and are planning to seriously restrict Yerevan’s transport communication with the rest of the country to lower attendance at the rally. “The authorities are terrified that their lies will be exposed,” Zurabian told reporters. “They have tried to persuade the public and the international community in that the [opposition] movement has died out, that internal stability is restored, and that there is no political crisis in Armenia.”
The HAK, which is led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, holds the authorities solely responsible for the unprecedented post-election unrest, saying that they deliberately used lethal force to crush street protests against alleged vote rigging. The police actions on that day were also criticized by New York-based Human Rights Watch in an extensive report issued on Wednesday.
Sargsian, who was appointed as police chief in June 2008, dismissed the criticism, saying that the police can only be faulted for being too slow in reacting to the opposition actions on March 1. “I don’t defend police actions on March 1,” he said. “ “They may have been inactive at one point. But the police found themselves in an unpredictable situation and lost their orientation at that moment, as a result of which we too became victims. I feel very sorry for that.”
“We will wait until this investigation is over and then have our say as victims,” added Sargsian.