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Armenian Unrest Probe ‘Suspended’


Armenia -- A police car set on fire during the March 1, 2008 clashes in Yerevan between opposition protesters and security forces.

Armenia -- A police car set on fire during the March 1, 2008 clashes in Yerevan between opposition protesters and security forces.

A bipartisan body conducting an independent inquiry into last year’s deadly post-election clashes in Yerevan has suspended its work after its first confidential report challenging the official version of events was leaked to the opposition press.

Armenia’s two main opposition forces strongly condemned the move on Tuesday, saying that the authorities are exerting pressure on the Fact-Finding Group of Experts to prevent further embarrassing revelations. The government camp, for its part, accused the opposition of exploiting the inquiry for political purposes.

The five-member group was set up by President Serzh Sarkisian last October with the aim of collecting information that would shed more light on the causes of the March 1, 2008 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces. In accordance with an executive order signed by Sarkisian, the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) and Zharangutyun party each named one member of the group. Two other members were nominated by Armenia’s governing coalition loyal to the president.

The state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, picked the fifth member, Vahe Stepanian. The group elected Stepanian as its chairman when it met for the first time in November.

Stepanian said on Tuesday that he and two other group members chosen by the ruling coalition have “temporarily suspended” their activities because they need to take rest after six months of difficult work. “We are only talking only about nine working days from May 4 to May 18,” he told RFE/RL. “In accordance with our decision, we will hold our next meeting on May 18.”

The group’s two opposition-appointed members dismissed this explanation, saying that their colleagues had no right to halt the probe. The HAK and Zharangutyun went further, saying that the decision was made under government pressure and demanded that the authorities “immediately eliminate all obstacles to the work of the fact-finding group.” In a joint statement, the two opposition forces linked the alleged pressure to the publication of the group’s first report.

The report was disclosed by opposition newspapers on April 30, just days after being submitted to a special commission of the Armenian parliament which has also been investigating the March 2008 unrest. It mainly focused on circumstances of the death of Captain Hamlet Tadevosian, one of the two police servicemen killed in pitched battles with opposition protesters who barricaded themselves in central Yerevan.

Tadevosian was apparently the first casualty of the fierce clashes that also left eight civilians dead. According to the Armenian law-enforcement authorities, he was killed by an explosive device thrown by one of the protesters. They have presented that as proof of their claims that some of the opposition supporters had firearms and that the use of lethal force against them was therefore justified.

In its leaked report, the Fact-Finding Group questioned these claims, saying that investigators failed to properly examine the officer’s body, clothes and flak jacket. It suggested that the grenade that killed him exploded by his waist, rather than feet, as is claimed by the investigators. Opposition representatives have construed this as an implicit assertion that Tadevosian held the grenade in his hand and set it off inadvertently.

The Special Investigative Service (SIS), a law-enforcement body that has conducted the criminal investigation, rejected the group’s conclusions in a letter to the parliamentary commission sent on Monday. It charged that the bipartisan body “clearly distorted materials of the investigation, findings of forensic examinations and explanations given to the Fact-Finding Group by officials.”

The commission decided on Tuesday to ask Vahagn Harutiunian, a senior SIS official managing the investigation, to testify before the parliamentary inquiry and provide more detailed explanations. Its chairman, Samvel Nikoyan, condemned the information leak as a serious breach of the statutes of the Fact-Finding Group.

Under those rules set by President Sarkisian in October, the group’s members can meet only behind the closed doors and are not allowed to publicize any details of their inquiry or even comment on it before submitting their final report to Nikoyan’s commission. Nikoyan implicitly blamed the leak on the group’s opposition-linked members, accusing the HAK of turning the probe into an “object of immoral exploitation” ahead of the May 31 municipal polls in Yerevan.

“The document should not have been made public,” agreed Stepanian. “I can guess who could have leaked it to the press but I can’t say that for certain,” he added without elaboration.

When asked whether the suspension of the group’s activities was the result of the leak, Stepanian said: “I wouldn’t explicitly link the two things.”

Levon Zurabian, a top HAK representative, defended the publication of the group’s first report. Zurabian said it occurred after Nikoyan’s commission, boycotted by the Armenian opposition, tried to “conceal” a document which he believes dealt a further blow to the official theory of the unrest.

Armenian prosecutors already raised more questions about that theory last month when they dropped coup charges against seven of the opposition members arrested following the March 1 clashes. They had claimed until then that the violence was part of an opposition attempt to stage a coup d’etat.

(Photo courtesy of http://ditord.com)
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