By Hrach Melkumian
About a thousand people braved heavy rain in Yerevan Thursday to attend a demonstration staged by more than a dozen human rights and youth organizations against perceived police brutality and mass arrests of opposition activists.
Carrying slogans like “No to police state” and “Freedom,” the protesters, most of them students, marched towards the venue of this week’s opposition demonstration harshly broken up by security forces. They tied balloons to the railings of the adjacent parliament compound in a gesture of solidarity with scores of people injured in the violence. Some of the participants wore white T-shirts with “I am the people” written on them.
The organizers said the protest action is not an expression of support for the opposition bid to oust President Robert Kocharian.
“We have gathered here to express our civic attitude against violence, arbitrary arrests and other repressions,” said Hrant Ter-Abrahamian, the leader of a student organization. “We don’t want to live in a country where political problems are resolved in such a way.”
Another speaker, Eleonora Manandian, said they want to condemn “the terror against the people” and “break the atmosphere of fear” in the country.
The Armenian authorities say that the crackdown was justified because the opposition march towards the presidential palace in Yerevan was not sanctioned and disrupted “public order.” They also say it was part of an opposition plot to “seize power.”
At least 115 people, including parliament deputies, were arrested in the early morning melee. According to the police, twelve people were sentenced to up to 15 days of “administrative arrest” while three others, among them former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, are kept in custody in connection with a separate criminal investigation into the opposition activities.
Three other men have already been charged with calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order.” Like Harutiunian, they are senior members of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party.
Another protest organizer, Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, again described them as “political prisoners.” “They are prosecuted for expressing their political views,” he said.