By Emil Danielyan and Harry Tamrazian
Armenia faced on Friday more international criticism for the arrests of more than a hundred supporters of opposition presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian. Western human rights and election monitoring organizations said the unprecedented crackdown threatens the legitimacy of next week’s presidential run-off and demanded the immediate release of all detainees.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian admitted that the mounting criticism could seriously damage the country’s international standing and indicated that the authorities are now considering releasing some of the detainees.
The most strongly-worded statement of condemnation came from the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Mass detentions of opposition campaign officials threaten the integrity of Armenia’s March 5 presidential election runoff,” the internationally renowned watchdog said in a statement late Thursday.
“These arrests appear to be a clumsy attempt to disable the opposition in the week before the runoff election,” its executive director for Europe and Central Asia, Elizabeth Andersen, was quoted as saying.
“Detainees should be released immediately,” Andersen added. “They’ve had no access to due process. What is worse, new reports suggest police are overstepping all legal boundaries in their hunt for opposition activists.”
The arrests were also condemned by the U.S. National Democratic Institution, which has been monitoring the Armenian presidential race. “Arbitrary of disproportionate use of administrative or criminal sanctions in a political campaign period is a form of political discrimination that violates international standards,” the NDI said in a statement. “Fair political competition is subverted every day opposition supporters are thus held.”
According to the Armenian Justice Ministry, 86 opposition activists were sentenced to up to 15 days’ imprisonment and 69 others fined and set free as of Friday for their participation in unsanctioned demonstrations held by the Demirchian campaign over the past week. The authorities say they were punished for “hooligan acts” committed during the gatherings, but have offered little proof of the charges so far.
Some opposition activists appear unaccounted for. Two women from the southern town of Armavir told RFE/RL on Friday that they still don't know the whereabouts of their husbands arrested a week ago. The disappeared men ran Demirchian’s local campaign offices.
Human Rights Watch reported that police in Yerevan detained on Friday a 20-year-old woman “to compel her father, a Demirchian campaign headquarters official, to turn himself in.” Citing the chairman of a district court in central Yerevan which has jailed most of the oppositionists, the group confirmed that none of the defendants was given access to lawyers. “Straining credibility, [the judge] claimed that all 86 had declined to be represented,” it said.
The government crackdown is largely being carried out under Article 180 of the Armenian Code of Administrative Misdemeanors. Local human rights activists argue that the clause envisages punishment only for “organizing and holding” unsanctioned street protests. None of the rally organizers has been prosecuted so far.
The arrests were on Friday again deplored by the head of the largest international mission to monitor the Armenian election. Peter Eicher, head of the mission deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” told RFE/RL: “From my perspective, to have detained substantial numbers of opposition activists during an election campaign cast a cloud over the election campaign. This is something we will certainly comment on in our [final] statement as having negatively affected the election campaign.”
Eicher said he has raised his concerns during his meetings with Armenian Police chief Hayk Harutiunian and other “very senior government officials.”
At the same time, both Eicher and the NDI urged Armenian opposition leaders to refrain from calls for a violent overthrow of the government. “Any calls for use of violence or unconstitutional actions are not legitimate responses to electoral grievances,” the NDI statement said.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Oskanian admitted that the arrests are “causing serious complications” for official Yerevan but said they were needed for “maintaining public order” in the country. “All the arrests were justified in one way or another,” he told RFE/RL in an interview. “I myself inquired about them and was told that all this was done in accordance with the letter of the law.”
Still, Oskanian revealed that President Robert Kocharian, blamed by the opposition for the arrests, has told law-enforcement agencies to consider freeing some of the opposition activists. “Given that the second round is lying ahead, it would probably be right for the authorities to rethink this situation and, if there are people arrested for minor offences, set them free on certain conditions,” Oskanian said cautiously.