By Karine Kalantarian
Ashot Manucharian, a prominent opposition politician, remained under intensive care in a Yerevan hospital on Friday, one day after being beaten up on the street by unknown assailants.
Doctors said his condition was still “not stable” as of late afternoon. Manucharian, who was knocked unconscious and suffered severe wounds to his face, was too frail to talk to prosecutors who announced a criminal investigation into the latest in a series of violent incidents targeting journalists and individuals critical of the Armenian leadership.
The investigators questioned instead members of the Intellectual Forum, a pro-opposition organization linked to Manucharian. He was attacked on his way to the group’s office. According to an eyewitness, the attackers were three strongly built men with shaven heads -- a common feature of bodyguards surrounding many government-connected tycoons in Armenia.
The description fits the appearance of about two dozen thugs that tried to disrupt an opposition rally on April 5. Law-enforcement officers, including deputy police chief General Hovannes Varian, looked on as they attacked journalists and smashed cameras that filmed their actions. The police claim to be investigating the incident but have not arrested anyone yet.
They faced a further outcry after beating up four journalists who covered the brutal break-up of another opposition rally on the night from April 12 to 13. One of those journalists says Varian personally ordered his beating by baton-wielding security officers. Varian denies this.
There have also been no arrests in connection with the recent beatings of opposition lawmaker Victor Dallakian and human rights activist Mikael Danielian. The March 30 violence against the latter prompted strong protests from international human rights groups. President Robert Kocharian said afterwards that he personally instructed the prosecutors to identify and punish the guilty.
Dallakian, meanwhile, said on Friday that the authorities are continuing the “persecution” of opposition activists and supporters. He claimed that the number of people detained following the last opposition rally held in Yerevan on Wednesday has risen to about 300. “What we are seeing is a concerted campaign of terror against the people,” he charged.
The national Police Service, for its part, insists that only 76 people were detained for “disobeying police orders” during the protest. It says 23 of them were sentenced to up 15 days’ imprisonment while the others were fined and set free.
The Office of Prosecutor-General confirmed that among the detainees is a top bodyguard of opposition leader Stepan Demirchian. It emerged that the man, Artur Vartanian, is an Armenian-born U.S. national. A statement by the law-enforcement agency said Vartanian “actively participated” in the anti-Kocharian rallies and is suspected of involvement in the alleged opposition bid to “forcibly seizing state power.” The statement also accused him of “repeatedly and illegally” crossing into Armenia with a an Armenian passport.
Vartanian was hospitalized late Thursday with a heart problem. He was said to have requested a meeting with the U.S. consul in Yerevan. Officials from the U.S. embassy were due to meet the suspect in hospital. But it was unclear whether they visited him on Friday.
(Photolur photo: Vartanian, left, accompanying Demirchian at a recent rally.)