By Ruzanna Stepanian
A prominent member of the Armenian opposition was beaten up and hospitalized on Thursday, and dozens of opposition supporters were detained for participating in a large anti-government rally the previous night.
Ashot Manucharian, a veteran politician who had held key government posts in the early 1990s, was attacked in broad daylight by three unknown men, according to a human rights activist who accompanied him. Gayane Markosian told RFE/RL that Manucharian was taken to hospital with broken jaw bones and underwent urgent surgery.
Markosian described the attackers as burly men with shaven heads. She said one of them pushed her aside, while the two others kicked and punched the oppositionist.
Manucharian rose to the prominence in 1988 when he became one of the most popular leaders of a mass movement for Nagorno-Karabakh’s reunification with Armenia. He was a key member of the country’s first post-Communist government until he fell out with President Levon Ter-Petrosian in 1994. He has kept a low profile for much of the past decade, developing a reputation of a behind-the-scenes politician with close Russian connections.
Manucharian has been in opposition to President Robert Kocharian in recent years, but is not affiliated with any of the major opposition parties. He has indicated his support for their two-month campaign for regime change by reportedly helping to set up the Intellectual Forum, a group uniting several prominent Armenian intellectuals opposed to Kocharian.
One of its members, poetess Silva Kaputikian, has earned opposition accolades for sending back a state award to Kocharian in protest against the brutal dispersal by police of an opposition rally last week. Another member, Rafael Ghazarian, delivered an emotional speech at the most recent street protest staged by the Artarutyun alliance and the National Unity Party (AMK) on Wednesday.
Incidentally, Manucharian was attacked in downtown Yerevan as he was heading for a meeting of the Intellectual Forum. He is the third prominent oppositionist to be beaten up in less than a month. No one has been arrested in connection with the beatings yet.
Meanwhile, the authorities resumed late Wednesday wholesale detentions of opposition activists and ordinary participants of Artarutyun-AKM rallies. A spokesman for the Armenian Police Service told RFE/RL 76 people were detained for “disobeying police orders” during the latest rally. He said 23 of them were sentenced to up 15 days’ imprisonment while the others were fined and set free overnight.
Opposition sources, however, reported about 200 such arrests, accusing the police of randomly “ambushing” and “kidnapping” people in a bid to intimidate their supporters. “A real manhunt has begun,” AMK leader Artashes Geghamian charged. “Mr. Kocharian, who has organized that manhunt, thinks that he can bring a whole civilized nation to its knees. But he is doomed.”
Varuzhan Tovmasian, a resident of the Aragatsotn region, and his two fellow villagers were among those who spent the night in police custody. “We were walking up Abovian Street when some plainclothes people surrounded us, pushed us into a car without license plates and took us to a police station without giving a reason,” he said. “There they tried to force us to confess that we were arrested for committing hooligan acts.”
Citing Armenia’s controversial Code of Administrative Offences, a Yerevan court fined Tovmasian 2,000 drams ($3.5) early in the morning.
Wednesday’s demonstration was not sanctioned by the authorities. No disruption of public order or other violent incidents were reported during the protest.
The authorities cited similar justifications when they arrested and jailed hundreds of participants of opposition protests during and in the aftermath of last year’s disputed presidential election. The 2003 crackdown was condemned by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In a resolution adopted last January, the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) said it is “shocked by the scandalous use that continues to be made of the arbitrary procedures concerning administrative detention.” The resolution renewed calls for sweeping amendments to the Administrative Code.
The authorities renewed their recourse to the mass arrest after the opposition campaign for Kocharian’s resignation hit the top gear earlier this month.