By Ruzanna Stepanian
Campaigning for the Armenian constitutional referendum was marred by the first violent incident on Thursday when special police beat up a man who agitated in Yerevan for a popular boycott of the vote together with opposition leaders. The incident highlighted mounting political tension in Armenia ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Ashot Poghosian, a senior member of the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, was hospitalized after an argument with police officers who followed a long opposition motorcade touring various parts of the city. Poghosian and several eyewitnesses said he was toppled and kicked for resisting arrest.
A road police patrol stopped Poghosian’s car, which was at the end of the procession, on a street in the city center for allegedly violating traffic rules. He was then approached a group of so-called “red berets,” members of a feared special police unit. The opposition activist, who leads a Hanrapetutyun chapter in Yerevan, appeared in pain and had trouble speaking to reporters as he awaited an ambulance.
“They demanded my documents,” he said. “I got out of my car and they immediately attacked me. They tried to detain me before I could tell them that the documents are in the car. They were pulling me but I didn’t want to follow them. They apparently hit me with their legs.”
“They first invited Ashot Poghosian to a police station and then began jostling and kicking him in the belly,” a correspondent of A1plus.am, the online news service of the banned A1+ television, reported from the scene. “Passengers of another car that tried to defend him were also subjected to violence.”
However, the “red berets” denied beating Poghosian as they argued with one of the opposition leaders, Arshak Sadoyan. “I didn’t hit him,” said one of them. “I tried to detain him. He didn’t obey legitimate orders.”
But a ghastly wound on the man’s belly and his urgent hospitalization suggested the opposite. He was discharged from hospital several hours later.
“Nobody hit him,” a police colonel who leads the “red berets” told RFE/RL. “I’m not going to answer any of your questions. Put your microphone away. You don’t get it?” he snapped, pushing back the microphone.
An A1+ reporter saw her tape recorder slap her on the face as she tried to interview another policeman.
Poghosian’s car and a van carrying amplifiers used by the opposition in its campaign gatherings were impounded in the process. The van was released later in the day. But without the amplifiers, according to opposition leaders. “All the equipment disappeared,” one of them, Aram Karapetian, told reporters. “They say it was stolen.”
Earlier in the day, a large group of high-level law-enforcement officers led by the chief of the Yerevan police, Hovannes Tamamian, watched as dozens of opposition cars massed at a square in central Yerevan for the campaign drive. “If a car passes at the red light, it will be punished,” a deputy head of the municipal police warned the organizers.
The incident did not prevent representatives of the coalition of about two dozen opposition parties rejecting President Robert Kocharian’s from driving through the streets of the capital, dropping leaflets and honking their cars’ horns. The action ended in a rally in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district. Opposition leaders urged its participants to attend anti-government demonstrations in the city center planned for the coming days.
The United States has warned its citizens residing in Armenia to stay away from the venues of this week’s opposition gatherings, saying that they could be accompanied by violent incidents.
(Photo courtesy of www.a1plus.am.)