A maverick Armenian opposition activist and more than three dozen of his supporters were detained in downtown Yerevan on Tuesday in violent clashes with riot police that followed what he called an attempt to carry out an anti-government “revolution.”
The several dozen protesters armed with wooden sticks, stones and homemade stun grenades and flares tried to march through the city center after a sit-in in Liberty Square organized by their leader, Shant Harutiunian. The protest swiftly descended into chaos as the crowd clashed with police officers as well as several plainclothes men standing in their way on Mashtots Avenue, one of Yerevan’s main thoroughfares. Traffic through the street was blocked as a result.
Seeking to break the police cordon, the protesters used sticks and set off the deafening explosives that caused heavy smoke. Security forces were able to contain and disperse the aggressive crowd only after calling in police reinforcements. Helped by special police units, they made scores of arrests in the process.
The first deputy chief of the Armenia police, Hunan Poghosian, and the head of Yerevan’s police department, Ashot Karapetian, personally oversaw the operation at the scene. A police statement issued later in the day said that 37 “delinquent” individuals, including Harutiunian, were taken into custody. It said several policemen were injured in the clashes but gave no details.
The statement blamed Harutiunian for the violence. It said that the veteran activist, known for his hardline nationalist rhetoric in the past, was repeatedly warned by the police in recent days to “discontinue his imprudent behavior and calls for illegal actions.”
Harutiunian, who is not affiliated with any major political party, moved into Liberty Square with a group of his supporters late last week. He declared that they are launching a “revolution” aimed at bringing down Armenia’s current leadership denounced by him as corrupt and undemocratic.
“We have no weapons yet other than Molotov cocktails, sticks, stones and magnesium [flash] bombs,” Harutiunian told journalists moments before the incident. “If they use firearms against us, those of us who stay alive will fight against them with assault rifles. We, revolutionaries, do not want bloodshed.”
Harutiunian also claimed that there are government “provocateurs” in the crowd led by him.
Harutiunian has been active on the Armenian political scene for more than two decades, occasionally holding rallies and making flamboyant statements. He unexpectedly became one of the main speakers at a fateful March 1-2, 2008 rally in central Yerevan that followed the breakup of post-election demonstrations held by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian in the wake of a disputed presidential election. The rally ended after vicious overnight clashes between opposition supporters and security forces which left ten people dead.
Harutiunian joined the 2008 protest despite not being formally affiliated with Ter-Petrosian’s opposition movement. He was among more than 100 opposition members arrested in the following days and spent more than a year in prison.