The Armenian authorities have not imposed a permanent ban on opposition rallies in a key Yerevan square, the chief of the national police service, Alik Sargsian, insisted on Friday.
“The police have received no concrete orders to bar the opposition from Liberty Square or to ban any rallies there,” Sargsian said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Nor I have issued such instructions to my subordinates.”
The square, the main traditional venue for political gatherings in Armenia, has been effectively off limits to the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) ever since it was reopened for public access in May following a two-year reconstruction. Riot police used force to prevent small groups of HAK from entering it in late May and early June.
In what appears to be a related development, the Yerevan municipality has refused to allow the opposition alliance to hold rallies there this month. While condemning the ban as illegal and politically motivated, the HAK has chosen to comply with it.
Sargsian claimed that opposition rallies would interfere with “cultural events” planned in Liberty Square and disturb other citizens spending their time there. “Isn’t it the police’s job to prevent severe consequences?” he asked.
The police general also argued that the HAK was allowed to hold a rally on Friday elsewhere in the city center city. “Nobody has the right to place himself above the law,” he said. “Take today’s sanctioned rally to be followed by a sanctioned march. The police will simply be maintaining public order and will avoid any interference.”
Sargsian was also asked to comment on the continuing public uproar sparked by the death of a young man in police custody. He insisted on the official version of events whereby Vahan Khalafian, a resident of the central town of Charentsavan, committed suicide after being ill-treated at a local police station in April.
Four Charentsavan police officers are currently standing trial on torture charges. Khalafian’s relatives believe that the 24-year-old, who was detained on suspicion of theft, was beaten to death by his interrogators.
“I am deeply convinced that it was a suicide,” insisted Sargsian. “Maybe he was made to commit suicide. Maybe there was pressure.” “They don’t kill people in police stations,” he added.