Lieutenant-General Alik Sargsian, the chief of the Armenian police, on Thursday vehemently defended the arrest of seven opposition activists, saying that they assaulted and verbally abused police officers maintaining public order in Yerevan.
Speaking at a news conference, Sargsian spent about an hour presenting the official version of a violent dispute that landed the young members of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) in detention late on Tuesday.
He said the dispute erupted in a downtown Yerevan park after police officers “reprimanded” a young man for walking his dog without a muzzle. “The young man politely replied to the policemen that he is sorry and thanked them for the reprimand,” he said.
In Sargsian’s words, Tigran Arakelian, a leader of the HAK’s youth wing, and another activist then approached the policemen, started insulting them and provoked a brawl. The two men were joined by several other HAK activists before the policemen called in reinforcements and detained all of them.
“Nobody will believe in this,” complained Sargsian. “People will wonder how come they started insulting the policeman for nothing. But times have changed. Today we have a ‘special’ category of people, the [HAK] youth wing.”
According to the HAK, the incident occurred after the opposition youths tried to stop police officers from arbitrarily checking the identity of other young people walking in the city center. The opposition bloc says they were beaten up and driven to the police headquarters in Yerevan’s central Kentron district as a result.
The police insist, however, that it was the officers who were injured in the fight. Arakelian is alleged to have head-butted one of the policemen and broken his nose.
“What I’m saying is true, please believe me,” Sargsian appealed to journalists in an unusually emotional manner. “I have no interest in distorting the reality.”
The police chief went on to strongly deny HAK allegations that the young men were also ill-treated in custody. On the contrary, he said, they swore at and humiliated law-enforcement officers after being taken to the police headquarters in Yerevan’s central Kentron district.
The police have video evidence of their “shameful” conduct there but will not publicize it now for ethical considerations, Sargsian claimed. He also said that blood tests conducted after the arrests showed that Arakelian and two other oppositionists were drunk.
Armenians have instead been able to watch an Internet video, shot in still unclear circumstances, of the seven men showing injuries on their faces and backs in police custody.
Sargsian dismissed those injuries as “minor bruises.” “People can cause each other bruises even when they have fun,” he said. “Do you consider that an injury?”
Virtually all of the detainees have repeatedly clashed with police before, usually while publicizing major rallies held by the HAK in Yerevan. Arakelian was arrested in July 2009 and kept in jail for three months.
The HAK leadership on Wednesday strongly condemned the latest detentions and demanded the immediate release of its activists. In a statement, it said the Armenian authorities may have provoked the violent incident in response to HAK demands for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections.
The HAK suggested at the same time that “some forces” in the government are taking advantage of President Serzh Sarkisian’s absence from Armenia to derail his ongoing dialogue with the country’s largest opposition force.
“I would never want to see that dialogue stop,” insisted Sargsian. “I am the first to be interested in that dialogue.”