By Hrach Melkumian
Baton-wielding police and interior troops in Yerevan stopped Tuesday several thousand opposition supporters from reaching President Robert Kocharian’s official residence in the latest in a series of anti-government protests that followed this month’s disputed presidential election.
The demonstration was sparked by the weekend arrest of the brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian on charges of involvement in the recent killing of the head of Armenia’s state television and radio. Law-enforcement authorities say they have sufficient evidence to prosecute businessman Armen Sarkisian.
However, Aram Sarkisian’s Hanrapetutyun party and other opposition forces supporting defeated presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian insist that the arrest was politically motivated, accusing Kocharian of trying to discredit them.
“He did not arrest my brother, he took him hostage,” a furious Sarkisian told the crowd. “This is an old Asian tactics.”
Braving rain, the crowd then marched towards the presidential palace central Yerevan, but was stopped by rows of barbed wire, riot police and interior troop servicemen holding shields and truncheons. The stand-off ended peacefully, with the angry demonstrators turning back after chanting “Shame!” and “Kocharian, go away!”
Still, a small group of protesters, mainly women led by Sarkisian’s mother Greta, did manage to get behind police lines and stand just outside Kocharian’s office. They gathered there in the morning, long before the march. Police officers who surrounded the building did not attempt to disperse the them.
Greta Sarkisian again defended her arrested son, saying that he is innocent. But she said he is ready to stand trial and demanded the authorities release him on bail.
Armen Sarkisian, meanwhile, was allowed on Tuesday to meet his lawyer Robert Grigorian in jail. Grigorian told RFE/RL that the meeting lasted for more than an hour. He again claimed that state prosecutors should drop the charges against his client for lack of evidence.
The case against Sarkisian appears to be based on testimony given Hovannes Harutiunian, his distant relative and another major suspect in the case arrested last week. Harutiunian reportedly told his interrogators that he was paid $50,000 by Sarkisian to arrange the December 28 killing of Tigran Naghdalian, the former head of the state-run Armenian Public Television and Radio.
The high-profile arrest added a new twist to the lingering post-election tensions in Armenia. Demirchian has refused to concede defeat and asked Armenia’s Constitutional Court to annul the official vote results which gave victory to Kocharian. Demirchian and his opposition allies have also vowed to keep up pressure on the authorities with a campaign of street protests.