A once influential Armenian party supporting President Serzh Sarkisian has taken disciplinary action against one of its members who refused to sign a report justifying the use of deadly force against opposition protesters in March 2008, it emerged on Thursday.
Artavazd Vartanian of the National Democratic Union (AZhM) was one of the few members of an ad hoc parliamentary commission who objected to its report on the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan between security forces and supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The 138-page report released last week concluded that the Armenian police and other security bodies were right to break up massive demonstrations staged by Ter-Petrosian following the disputed February 2008 presidential election. It said that there were only isolated instances of excessive force used by them. The violence left eight civilians and two security personnel dead.
Vartanian said on Thursday that he did not sign the report because he regards as “unsatisfactory” the work of the National Assembly commission dominated by pro-government lawmakers. He accused the Armenian authorities of seeking to hide key facts related to the unrest.
Vartanian also suggested that the number of people killed in the clashes may have been higher. “As a result of forensic examinations, five small pools of blood were found [at the scene of the clashes,] but blood samples taken from them were not compared with blood samples of killed or injured persons,” he told a news conference. “Maybe they weren’t compared deliberately,” he said.
Vartanian’s stance appears to have angered AZhM leader Vazgen Manukian. Manukian told RFE/RL that the AZhM board has discussed the issue and found that by failing to sign the report Vartanian committed a “disciplinary mistake.” He said the commission member should have consulted with the party leadership and followed its instructions.
“The commission was guided by the principle that its members represent themselves, rather than parties,” countered Vartanian. He said he has not been expelled from his party “as yet.” Manukian confirmed that.
The AZhM’s sharp reaction to its member’s behavior underscores a long-running feud between Ter-Petrosian and Manukian. The two men had jointly led Armenia to independence, serving as the country’s first president and prime minister respectively before becoming bitter rivals in the early 1990s.
Manukian was the main opposition candidate in a 1996 presidential election controversially won by Ter-Petrosian. The latter ordered troops into Yerevan to quell opposition protests against alleged vote rigging.
Unlike other opposition politicians, Manukian refused to back Ter-Petrosian’s 2008 presidential bid. He went on to recognize Sarkisian’s victory in the disputed ballot and endorse the Armenian authorities’ post-election crackdown on the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. Earlier this year, the AZhM leader was appointed as head of an advisory “public council” of politicians prominent public figures formed by Sarkisian.
The parliamentary inquiry was also criticized on Thursday by one of the two opposition members of the bipartisan Fact-Finding Group of Experts that also investigated the March 2008 unrest until being disbanded by Sarkisian in June. “How can you make such a conclusion after having ten casualties, more than 100 wounded people, people who suffered gun wounds, a huge quantity weapons and ammunition used?” Andranik Kocharian asked in an interview with RFE/RL. He said the report should not have called the police actions “by and large legitimate and adequate” because the commission failed to prove that opposition protesters carried weapons.
Kocharian also said that he and the other opposition member of the disbanded group, Seda Safarian, will continue to issue their own reports questioning the official theory of the unrest. They have already disputed government claims that the two police servicemen were killed by protesters.
In a major boost to the Armenian authorities, the commission report was largely endorsed last week by Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman who also sat on the panel boycotted by the opposition. Harutiunian had been more critical of the police actions in the wake of the March 2008 clashes.