By Hrach Melkumian and Emil Danielyan
Armenian police made Monday dozens of more arrests of opposition activists who participated in Sunday’s unsanctioned big demonstration in support of opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian. Opposition leaders denounced the crackdown as a government attempt to intimidate them ahead of next week’s presidential run-off, while the authorities insisted that they are only enforcing the law.
According to the Armenian Justice Ministry, 99 people have been held in Yerevan and surrounding regions since Friday. A ministry spokesman told RFE/RL that most of them were sentenced to up to 15 days in jail for attending “illegal” opposition gatherings and committing “hooligan acts.” Others were fined and set free.
Demirchian aides put the total number of arrests at more than 130. “More than 30 people were taken to police this morning alone,” said Dustrik Mkhitarian of the opposition National Democratic Party (AZhK). “It is not clear what will happen to them.”
Mkhitarian said among the detainees is one woman and a 14-year-old boy identified as Sos Yesayan. His parents fear that he too will get a jail sentence, she added.
According to a leader of another pro-Demirchian party, Hanrapetutyun (Republic), most of the detainees are the opposition candidate’s proxies who “fought against fraud” during last week’s first-round voting. “They are arrested early in the morning and sentenced to 15 days in illegal trials that take place without defense lawyers,” Albert Bazeyan told RFE/RL.
“The authorities are trying to neutralize opposition resources ahead of the second round,” Bazeyan claimed.
However, Justice Ministry spokesman Ara Saghatelian denied any political motives behind the arrests, saying that they are carried out in accordance with Article 180 of Armenia’s Code on Administrative Misdemeanors. But opposition leaders counter that the clause envisions criminal liability only for “organizing and holding” unsanctioned street protests. They also point to a clause in the Armenian constitution which guarantees everyone the right to attend peaceful gatherings.
Saghatelian dismissed those arguments, saying that many of those arrested are guilty of “hooliganism” and have a criminal record. “We see that along with peaceful demonstrators there are individuals that are used to solving their issues by abnormal and illegal methods,” he said. He would not say what concrete form the alleged “hooliganism” took.
The Armenian Administrative Code has long been criticized by domestic and international human rights organizations. In a resolution last September, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe urged Yerevan to revise it “without delay,” saying that some of its provisions facilitate human rights abuses. The PACE specifically called on the authorities to abolish the provisions concerning administrative detention and to “refrain from applying them in the interim.”
The code was also recently attacked by another internationally respected watchdog, Human Rights Watch. In an annual report on Armenia’s 2002 human rights record, the New York-based group accused the Armenian law-enforcement authorities of “exploiting the code's failure to allow those detained under it access to counsel.” “The administrative court system appeared to be little more than a ‘pocket court’ for police,” it said.
An estimated 40,000 Demirchian supporters attended Sunday’s rally in Yerevan to demand, among other things, the release of people jailed in the first wave of arrests on Saturday.
(Photolur photo: Riot police, positioned behind barbed wire, guarding the Central Election Commission building in Yerevan during Sunday's rally.)