By Astghik Bedevian
The Armenian opposition reported over the weekend fresh arrests and “intimidation” of dozens of its activists by plainclothes police following its latest unsanctioned rally held in Yerevan.
Artak Zeynalian, who heads the coordinating center of about two dozen opposition parties campaigning against the government, said that at least 35 protesters were forcibly taken to police stations in Yerevan and outside it late Friday. “I witnessed how people were being ambushed and kidnapped by plainclothes individuals,” he told reporters. “They would get out of their cars, twist people’s hands, force them into those cars and speed away.”
Zeynalian said all of them were released several hours later after being bullied and warned by law-enforcement officers not to attend more street protests planned by the opposition. He claimed that some of them were ill-treated in the process.
Opposition leaders say the “mass arrests” began in the run-up to the November 27 constitutional referendum, which the opposition considers fraudulent and is using for another attempt to overthrow the government. A senior police spokesman admitted on Thursday that opposition activists across the country have been “invited to conversations” with police officers and warned against “organizing unsanctioned rallies.” But he claimed that none of them was forcibly brought to police stations.
“It’s we [opposition leaders] who organize the rallies, not ordinary people,” Aram Sarkisian, the leader of Zeynalian’s Hanrapetutyun party, appealed to the police during Friday’s rally. “Arrest us, if you are real men.”
The Armenian authorities already resorted to random arrests of opposition activists and other protesters during a similar opposition campaign in spring 2004 and the 2003 presidential elections. Hundreds of them were sentenced to up to 15 days’ imprisonment under the Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses, a practice condemned by the Council of Europe and other international watchdogs. The authorities have not yet used the code this time around.
Among the reported detainees is Poghos Abrahamian, the head of the Hanrapetutyun chapter in the southern Armavir region. Abrahamian has also coordinated the opposition’s pre-referendum campaign in the area. A statement by Hanrapetutyun said he is being “periodically” placed under “illegal” police custody.
Another activist, Margarita Manukian of the National Democratic (AZhM) party, has coordinated the opposition campaign in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district. She and her husband Vrezh Yeranosian were reportedly caught by plainclothes officers as they walked home after Friday’s rally.
A similar fate awaited Edgar Hakobian, a senior member of former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian’s Zharangutyun party and its affiliate organization called National Citizens Initiative (NCI). An NCI statement said Hakobian was questioned by a man who appeared to be the deputy police chief in another Yerevan district, Arabkir. “Hakobian was told that if he takes part in another unsanctioned demonstration, he will be subjected to administrative responsibility, which can mean ‘different things,’ including a 15-day imprisonment,” said the statement.
Police presence at the post-referendum rallies in Yerevan has been unusually high-level despite the relatively small number of people attending them. Opposition leaders have clearly failed to mobilize what they call a “critical mass” of protesters capable of sweeping away the ruling regime.
According to Zeynalian, the police actions show that the authorities remain worried about the spillover effects of the recent ex-Soviet revolutions. “It’s not just the number of people that matters,” he said. “Also important is the period of time during which people are ready to constantly attend rallies.”