The Armenian police on Thursday defended the use of force against hundreds of people who demonstrated against Armenia’s membership in a Russian-led customs union during an official visit by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
At least 110 protesters were detained as riot police stopped the mostly young crowd from approaching the presidential palace in Yerevan where Putin held talks with President Serzh Sarkisian on Monday. They spent several hours in custody and are facing fines for defying police orders during the unsanctioned rally. Some of them claim to have been ill-treated.
Eight Armenian civic organizations condemned the police actions and demanded an end to “repressions” against anti-government activists on Wednesday. In a joint statement, they said the activists had a legitimate right to challenge Sarkisian’s “arbitrary and unfounded” decision to make Armenia part of the customs union.
“During those protests the police violated citizens’ freedom of movement, speech and assembly,” added the statement.
The national police service rejected the criticism, insisting that security forces acted in accordance with Armenian laws on street gatherings. A statement issued by it said the 110 protesters had to be “isolated from the site of the gathering” because they breached those laws.
The statement acknowledged at the same time that some police officers might have used excessive force. It said the national police chief, Vladimir Gasparian, has ordered an inquiry into their actions.
It was not immediately clear whether one of Gasparian’s deputies, Levon Yeranosian, will also be investigated. Yeranosian was among top police officials who oversaw the use of force against the protesters at the scene.
The Yerkir.am new service accused him of threatening to attack Taguhi Melkonian, one its reporters who covered the protest. The online publication posted on its website purported audio of the police general’s threats to smash her mobile phone.
Melkonian said Yeranosian became furious after she asked him whether the police actions are legitimate. Yerkir.am has lodged a formal complaint with the police.
Another journalist, Vartan Minasian of the “Hraparak” daily, claimed to have been punched by a policeman while being detained and driven to a police station along with a group of protesters. Minasian said he was attacked immediately after telling a colleague by phone that some of those activists are being beaten up in the police truck.
“I haven’t heard of such treatment of journalists during other anti-government rallies held at least over the past year,” the Yerkir.am editor, Agnesa Khamoyan, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “It didn’t matter whether you are a journalist or protester, minor adult, man or woman. They had one objective: to ensure that the Russian president sees no [protesting] citizens in the streets.”