Security forces should avoid using force against peaceful protesters and resort to firearms only in case of extremely violent riots, according to new rules for crowd control adopted by Armenian police.
The detailed “guidelines” for riot police were elaborated with expert assistance from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and approved by Vladimir Gasparian, chief of the national police, late last year.
The guidelines specify the types of “special means” which the police can use to deal with “armed resistance” and demonstrations that turn violent and “endanger public safety.” Those include batons, electric-shock guns, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
There is no reference to Russian-made tear gas capsules that were mishandled by police officers during the March 2008 post-election clashes in Yerevan which left eight opposition protesters and two police personnel dead. Four of the civilian victims are believed to haven killed by such capsules. The others were shot dead by live rounds fired by security forces.
The March 2008 events were the worst street violence in Armenia’s history that still reverberates on the local political scene. The Armenian authorities insist that they used deadly force to end “mass disturbances” organized by close associates of opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian with the aim of forcibly toppling the government. Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian National Congress (HAK) vehemently deny the official theory, saying that the authorities deliberately killed people to enforce the results of a fraudulent presidential election.
The new police guidelines stipulate that police officers can use firearms only if the conventional riot gear and other “special means” fail to contain a violent crowd. But they are not allowed to open fire when there are “substantial concentrations of people” carrying a high risk of injuring innocent civilians. They should not use force at all if a demonstration proceeds peacefully, according to the document.
“The purpose of such changes is to minimize all those cases where a police officer could act in an inadequate way,” Artur Osikian, a deputy chief of the police, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). But he would not say if they are specifically aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2008 bloodshed.
Nikol Pashinian, a senior HAK figure who spent about two years in prison for his role in that unrest, dismissed the guidelines, saying that their absence in 2008 was not the main reason for the loss of life. “These guidelines say nothing about what should be done if the authorities themselves organize mass riots to use force against a peaceful demonstration,” he said.
Pashinian argued that the authorities should simply stop rigging elections if they really want to avert such violence in the future. “Mass disturbances simply won’t happen if legitimate elections are held in the country,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.