Several young activists of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) risked prosecution on hooliganism charges on Thursday after being confronted by government loyalists and detained by the police as a result.
The activists clashed with members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) in downtown Yerevan on Wednesday as they promoted an upcoming HAK rally by handing out leaflets that branded President Serzh Sarkisian a “national traitor.”
Video of the incident posted on Armenian news websites showed the HHK youths objecting to the damning message and trying to wrest those leaflets out of the oppositionists’ hands. The latter refused to give in, wrestling and arguing with the Sarkisian supporters before police officers intervened to stop the altercation.
Twelve people, most of them HAK members, were detained on the spot. They all were set free three hours later.
A police spokesman said on Thursday that the young people were taken into custody on suspicion of hooliganism. The police are now “preparing materials” for a possible launch of formal criminal proceedings, he said.
Among the detainees were two journalists sympathetic to the HAK. One of them, Ani Gevorgian, claimed to have been slapped in the face by a plainclothes officer at a police station in central Yerevan. The police promised to investigate the claim.
The HAK condemned the incident as a government provocation aimed at minimizing attendance at its rally scheduled for March 1. “This will not only fail to influence politically active people but also make them angrier,” Levon Zurabian, the opposition party’s deputy chairman, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The government’s calculation is that with such incidents they can scare other people who tend to stay away from opposition rallies. But they have no chance to impede what will be a big and powerful rally.”
The HHK, for its part, defended the actions of its activists, among them a lecturer and the chairman of the student council of the Armenian State Agrarian Academy. “Our youths were quite restrained and urged them not to make such statements and formulations applying to the leader of our party and our country. The [HAK activists’] response was inadequate,” said Karen Avagian, the head of the ruling party’s youth wing.
“If our youths broke the law during that incident, I will call for them to be held accountable,” Avagian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
About a dozen HAK activists were already detained by the police on Monday night while trying to draw graffiti featuring Sarkisian’s face and a “national traitor” inscription. They could soon be fined up to 60,000 drams ($150) each.
The HAK, which is led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, plans to rally supporters in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on the 8th anniversary of deadly unrest that followed a disputed presidential election. Some Ter-Petrosian supporters expect the HAK leader to announce a new campaign of street protests aimed at bringing down Sarkisian.