By Karine Kalantarian and Shakeh Avoyan
Police in Gyumri made early on Monday several more arrests of opposition activists who took part in the weekend anti-government demonstration that was marred by violence blamed by the organizers on the authorities.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance said their further protests will go ahead as planned despite the disruption of Sunday’s rally which heightened political tensions in the country.
The chief prosecutor of the broader Shirak region, Hamlet Hovsepian, told RFE/RL that nine members of Artarutyun were in custody as of late afternoon for allegedly assaulting government supporters and plain-clothes police. He said they will be charged with “hooliganism” and did not rule out more arrests.
The Gyumri gathering was effectively disrupted after some of its participants scuffled with several women who raised banners denouncing President Robert Kocharian’s opponents. Shortly afterwards several men charged towards the podium amid eggs thrown in the direction of the opposition leaders.
The confrontation turned into a fistfight that ended with four opposition activists taken away by plain-clothes police officers. The local police said initially that they beat up one of the officers. But according to Hovsepian, three policemen were injured in the melee. The prosecutor claimed that the oppositionists also beat three women who he said were then taken to hospital.
An RFE/RL correspondent present at the scene did not witness serious injuries inflicted on any of the female supporters of the Armenian president who carried the inflammatory banners.
The Gyumri authorities had told Artarutyun last week that they can not maintain public order at the rally because of staff shortages in the police. The warning led the bloc’s leaders to request assistance from the chief of the national police, Hayk Harutiunian, two days before they visited Armenia’s second largest city. “Otherwise, responsibility for any [violent] incident will fall upon the police,” read their letter to Harutiunian made public on Monday.
The opposition leaders view the disguised police presence at the gathering as proof of their allegations that the “provocation” was organized by the authorities. They claim that the police officers themselves threw the eggs, blew up noisy firecrackers and incited the scuffles.
But Hovsepian said the officers arrived at the scene after hearing about the trouble and were right to detain “the criminals.” “Otherwise there could have been quite serious consequences,” he said, adding that the rally was not sanctioned by the city authorities because the police “knew that clashes were possible.”
Artarutyun’s ruling board, meanwhile, met in Yerevan to discuss the situation and ways of preventing more “provocations.” The board reaffirmed its April 13 deadline for the launch of a campaign of street protests in downtown Yerevan which will be staged jointly with another major opposition force, the National Unity Party. One of its members, Arshak Sadoyan, said April 12 is the most likely date.
Another Artarutyun leader, Victor Dallakian, said the protests will take place whether or not they are sanctioned by the city authorities, citing a constitutional clause guaranteeing freedom of assembly in Armenia. “We will write to the Yerevan mayor not to ask his permission but to inform him that we are going to hold a rally because we have that right under Article 26 of the constitution,” Dallakian said. “The events in Gyumri show that the regime’s days are numbered.”
The three pro-Kocharian parties making up Armenia’s ruling coalition warned on Friday that the opposition will face tough action by law-enforcement bodies if it attempts to infringe on “the country’s constitutional order.” Sources told RFE/RL that the country’s leading businessmen have been told to issue a joint statement voicing support for Kocharian and praising his economic policies.