By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian authorities began on Saturday releasing dozens of jailed supporters of presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian amid continuing opposition rallies and international criticism.
The Justice Ministry told RFE/RL that 48 persons sentenced to up to 15 days in jail by courts of first instance were set free by late evening after an appeal to the authorities made by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II. More than 10,000 people, meanwhile, demonstrated outside the ministry building in central Yerevan to demand the release of all detainees.
The unsanctioned march through the city center followed yet another anti-government rally held by 13 opposition parties supporting Demirchian’s bid for the Armenian presidency. Addressing the crowd, Demirchian demanded an end to “political persecutions” of his proxies and punishment for “fraudsters” which he claims robbed him of victory in last week’s first round of the presidential election. He accused incumbent President Robert Kocharian of seeking the backing of unnamed “thugs” ahead of the March 5 run-off.
More than 150 people, most of them affiliated with Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), have been detained over the past week for allegedly committing unspecified “hooligan acts” during the anti-Kocharian demonstrations in Yerevan. At least 86 detainees got short jail sentences in trials held behind the closed doors. The others were fined and set free.
The arrests have been denounced by local and international human rights groups as well as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE’s current chairman-in-office, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said bluntly in a statement on Friday that the oppositionists were jailed “because of their involvement in non-violent campaign activities” and urged official Yerevan to honor its OSCE commitments.
The New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch issued harsher criticism, accusing Kocharian of “disabling” the opposition ahead of the run-off.
The Justice Ministry spokesman, Ara Saghatelian, insisted that the Armenian Review Court began ordering the release of the opposition activists primarily in response to Catholicos Garegin’s call for clemency on “humanitarian grounds.” He also claimed all of the released activists admitted their guilt in written statements.
Speaking at the rally earlier in the day, opposition leaders put the number of their freed supporters at less than 20. Albert Bazeyan of the Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party called them “heroes.”
The authorities, however, say many of them have a prior criminal record and have published some of their names and pictures in the pro-Kocharian media in recent days. But according to the opposition leaders, none of those men has any connection with the Demirchian campaign.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian admitted that the mounting criticism damages the country’s democratic credentials and said the authorities should stop the crackdown.
Demirchian, meanwhile, again sounded supremely confident of his victory. “I was asked today whether we are doomed to go into the second round. I am replying that I am doomed to win,” he declared, prompting “Demirchian! Demirchian!” chants.
“I want to warn for the last time all those who intend to resort to fraud and violence. You would be strictly punished,” he added.
His top allies shared his optimism. “Robert Kocharian’s days in office are numbered,” claimed Shavarsh Kocharian of the opposition National Democratic Party. “We have already won,” agreed another Hanrapetutyun leader, Aram Sarkisian. “The whole civilized world has already accepted that victory.”
Kocharian and his loyalists are equally confident that they will win.
The gathering, held in front of a famous museum of ancient Armenian manuscripts, went ahead despite a permission granted by the city authorities to the pro-Kocharian Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) party to rally its supporters in the same venue at about the same time. But Dashnaktsutyun called off its planned action in an apparent bid to avoid an unpredictable confrontation with opposition supporters.
Bazeyan claimed though that the nationalist party was not sure that it will pull a large crowd. “Let them come tomorrow and hold their rally. We’ll see how many people will gather,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people have attended the Demirchian rallies in the capital over the past two weeks. Earlier on Saturday, the HZhK leader campaigned in the northern city of Vanadzor. Correspondents accompanying him said several thousand people turned out for his rally there.