By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Political parties involved in the latest opposition offensive against the Armenian government said on Thursday that police are rounding up and bullying their activists to keep them from attending more demonstrations planned in Yerevan.
The chief spokesman for Armenia’s Police Service, Sayad Shirinian, admitted that opposition activists have been “invited to conversations” with police officers and warned against “organizing unsanctioned rallies” in recent days. “There is no need to politicize this,” he told RFE/RL.
Shirinian denied that any of the oppositionists has been forcibly taken to police stations. However, two outspoken opposition leaders claimed the opposite. One of them, Aram Karapetian, said scores of members of his Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party have been briefly detained since the start of opposition street protests against the alleged rigging of Sunday’s constitutional referendum.
According to Karapetian, the Nor Zhamanakner leader in the southern town of Artashat, Nshan Asoyan, was on Wednesday kept in police custody for about ten hours and offered to quit the party. “This happens all the time,” he told RFE/RL.
Another opposition party called Fatherland and Honor reported two dozen detentions. Its leader, Garnik Markarian, said police officers in another nearby town, Ashtarak, questioned the head of the party’s local branch, Vartan Malkhasian, for several hours Thursday for a second time in less than a week.
“Police officers visited his Ashtarak house and took him to the local police station for questioning,” said Markarian. “They had no official documents, no court warrants.”
“His house been searched for so many times that they know by heart everything that is kept there,” he added.
Both Karapetian and Markarian said the police actions are part of renewed government “repression” against a coalition of two dozen opposition parties that are using the referendum controversy to challenge President Robert Kocharian. “The authorities are trying to show force by terrorizing opposition activists. But we have grown used to that,” said Karapetian.
The Armenian authorities already resorted to mass arrests to suppress the previous opposition bid for regime change in the spring of last year. Hundreds of opposition activists and supporters were sentenced to up to 15 days in prison under Armenia’s Soviet-era Administrative Code at the time. There are growing signs that the authorities are ready to take similar measures against participants of this week’s rallies.
The driver of a pro-government television station, Ar, was reportedly taken to the police station of his town of Masis on Wednesday to provide an explanation for his participation in one of those gatherings. Newspaper reports said he was set free after explaining that he simply drove an Ar TV crew to the scene and had to wait for it there.
The next opposition rally is scheduled for Friday. The authorities refused to sanction it, saying that they “can not guarantee the security” of its participants because of an official visit to Armenia by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. But the leaders of the opposition grouping decided to defy the de facto ban at a meeting on Thursday.
“We also decided to organize meetings with the ambassadors of foreign countries to discuss the situation and possible solutions with them,” one of the meeting’s participants, Vahan Shirkhanian, told RFE/RL.
The opposition leaders issued the authorities on Tuesday with a 72-hour ultimatum to scrap the highly controversial referendum results or face more protests. But attendance of the anti-government protests have fallen well short of their expectations so far.