After a more than yearlong inquiry boycotted by the opposition, a special commission of Armenia’s parliament defended on Wednesday the use of force against opposition protesters demanding a re-run of the February 2008 presidential election which left ten people dead.
In a 138-page report submitted to the National Assembly, the commission dominated by pro-government lawmakers concluded that security forces were right to break up massive post-election demonstrations organized in Yerevan by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian. It said that there were only isolated instances of excessive force used by law-enforcement officers.
Predictably, the commission also acknowledged that it was unable to shed more light on circumstances in which eight civilians and two police personnel were killed in fierce clashes that broke out late on March 1, 2008. It urged law-enforcement authorities to do more to track down and prosecute individuals responsible for those deaths.
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) shrugged off the report as a whitewash. “This report exposes the main purpose of the authorities and that commission: to cover up the monstrous crimes of March 1 and those individuals who shot dead ten citizens of Armenia,” HAK spokesman Arman Musinian told RFE/RL. “The commission has brilliantly accomplished that task.”
The parliamentary commission headed by deputy speaker Samvel Nikoyan was formed in June 2008 amid a widespread lack of public trust in the official criminal investigation into the deadly clashes. The HAK and other major opposition groups refused to name representatives to the body, saying that its mostly pro-government members can not be objective.
The Armenian government subsequently agreed to set up another, bipartisan body tasked with investigating the worst street violence in the country’s history. The government and opposition camps were equally represented in the Fact-Finding Group of Experts. It was disbanded in June this year amid mounting tensions between its pro-government and opposition members.
“In spite of some cases mentioned in this report, the commission concludes that during the events that took place in Yerevan on March 1-2, 2008 … police actions aimed at stopping mass disturbances were on by and large legitimate and adequate and stemmed from Articles 2, 10, and 12 of the law on police,” concluded the report read out by Nikoyan on the parliament floor on Wednesday.
The report said that the non-stop protests staged by the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition in Yerevan’s Liberty Square “destabilized the situation in the country,” “periodically disrupted public order,” and “paralyzed the work of state bodies.” Accordingly, it justified a pre-dawn police assault on opposition supporters camped there. Their violent dispersal triggered more vicious clashes elsewhere in the city center later on March 1.
The commission also approved of then President Robert Kocharian’s decision to call a state of emergency and order troops into the capital. In a late-night televised address to the nation, Kocharian described the opposition actions as a coup attempt. Scores of Ter-Petrosian loyalists were arrested and prosecuted on corresponding charges in the following weeks.
Ter-Petrosian and his allies strongly deny attempting to seize power by force. They insist that the government deliberately resorted to lethal force in order to enforce the official results of what they consider a fraudulent election.
Nikoyan’s commission essentially backed the coup claims, saying that the introduction of three-week emergency rule was justified. It criticized only some police actions such as the misuse of tear gas that caused three protesters’ deaths. “The commission condemns any case of unjustified use of force by police servicemen and believes that it must be properly investigated,” added its report.
The condemnation did not satisfy two commission members affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), which backed the crackdown at the time but is now in opposition to Kocharian’s controversially elected successor, Serzh Sarkisian. In a “special opinion” appended to the commission report, they criticized the violent dispersal of the opposition tent camp in Liberty Square and demanded that law-enforcement bodies conduct an “additional investigation” into the March 1 fatalities.
Despite these reservations, both Dashnaktsutyun lawmakers chose to sign the report. “Just because we don’t like a particular provision of the report doesn’t mean that we must reject the whole report,” one of them, Artsvik Minasian, explained to RFE/RL.
Not surprisingly, the report was well received by Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which Nikoyan is a member. HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov described the parliamentary inquiry as “objective.” “Nikoyan’s commission has worked honestly and done all it could do,” he said.
But a senior member of the opposition Zharangutyun party, which broadly agrees with the HAK’s take on the post-election unrest, dismissed the commission report as “unsatisfactory.” “The conclusions are not in tune with even some facts contained in the report,” said Stepan Safarian.