Two police officers were sentenced to three years in prison late Wednesday after being convicted of using disproportionate force during the break-up of demonstrations staged by the Armenian oppositions in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election.
A district court in Yerevan also ruled that they qualify for a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities in June and will therefore avoid imprisonment. Still, it banned them from working for law-enforcement and other state bodies for one year.
The case is a rare example of law-enforcement officials prosecuted in connection with the deadly March 1-2, 2008 clashes in Yerevan between opposition protesters and security forces. They left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured.
The two low-ranking policemen, Andranik Manukian and Gegham Grigorian, were accused earlier this year of beating up two civilians in the city center early on March 2, 2008. The accusation was essentially based on video of the incident circulated by the opposition.
The trial prosecutor, Ashot Nadoyan, insisted in his concluding remarks in the court that the defendants overstepped their legal powers and thereby “tarnished the reputation of the police.” Their actions also caused “substantial damage to the legitimate interests of individuals and the state,” he said.
Both Manukian and Grigorian persisted in pleading not guilty to the charges. They said they simply lost their nerve after being pelted with stones and insulted by a group of protesters.
Their lawyer, Artur Gharibian, likewise argued that the policemen used force against “participants of mass riots” after the declaration of a state of emergence by outgoing President Robert Kocharian. “I believe that the accusation is baseless,” he told RFE/RL.
Gharibian also claimed that his clients freed the two “rioters” on their way to a police station and thereby saved them from an almost certain imprisonment. He said the court failed to appreciate this “humanitarian act.”
Neither civilian was tracked down and questioned by prosecutors during the pre-trial investigation. Nor did they attend the court hearings.
“I am sure that they could have tracked down the victims if they wanted to,” said Vartan Harutiunian, a human rights activist close to the opposition. He claimed that the authorities failed to do that because the presence of the victims would have made the trial more “serious.”
Manukian and Grigorian are not the first police officers prosecuted in connection with the 2008 unrest. Another, more senior officer, was charged this summer with beating a man in Yerevan’s central Republic Square on March 1, 2008.
Also, Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) formally launched criminal proceedings in July in connection with the police mishandling of tear gas which is believed to have killed at least three opposition protesters who fought pitched battles with security forces in central Yerevan. But none of the policemen who fired tear gas capsules on that day is known to have been prosecuted so far.
The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), whose leader Levon Ter-Petrosian spearheaded the 2008 street protests, has dismissed these criminal cases as a smokescreen for what it calls a high-level cover-up of the “massacre.” It has repeatedly demanded the prosecution of former President Robert Kocharian and his top security officials who oversaw the suppression of the post-election rallies in Yerevan.