By Astghik BedevianFormer President Levon Ter-Petrosian spent four hours at a police station in Yerevan negotiating the release early on Wednesday of a dozen loyalists who were arrested while urging Armenians to take part in his rally scheduled for Friday.
The eleven detainees, most of them members of the Aylentrank (Alternative) movement, were among about a hundred Ter-Petrosian loyalists who marched through the city center on Tuesday evening to spread word of the planned rally. They were taken into custody after a scuffle with security forces led by Colonel Aleksandr Afian, deputy chief of the Yerevan police.
Eyewitnesses said the violence broke out after Afian demanded that Aylentrank leader Nikol Pashinian hand him a megaphone used during the march. Pashinian, who is also the editor of Armenia’s best-selling daily newspaper, refused to obey the order, they said.
“We told Afian that his actions are illegal,” Tigran, a young member of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun party also detained on the spot, told RFE/RL. “He said, ‘I am the law and you must do whatever I want.’ Then he called up [special police wearing] red berets and they attacked and arrested us.”
The police blamed the incident on the demonstrators, accusing them of disrupting public order. Colonel Nerses Nazarian, the Yerevan police chief said they interfered with traffic and littered streets and building entrances with leaflets advertising the Ter-Petrosian rally.
“People were complaining from their balconies that it is inadmissible to toss those papers,” Nazarian told a news conference. “That also got us worried and we repeatedly warned [the demonstrators.]”
“The purpose of the action was evident: to provoke some confrontation with the police,” Nazarian said, adding that Afian and four other policemen suffered injuries in the ensued melee. He described Afian as the number one victim of the violence, saying that the oppositionists pulled his shirt, threw off his hat and scratched his hands.
Nazarian confirmed that the police opened a criminal case in connection with the incident under the articles of the Armenian Criminal Code dealing with “hooliganism” and assault on state officials.
Pashinian and his allies dismissed the official version of events, saying that their street march did not violate Armenia’s law on public gatherings and was not banned by the Yerevan municipality. They accused security forces of violating their civil rights and demanded criminal proceedings against Afian. “Sashik Afian behaved like a street criminal,” charged Pashinian.
Pashinian and the ten other activists, among them the female editor of another pro-Ter-Petrosian newspaper, were set free early in the morning after Ter-Petrosian’s four-hour negotiations between with Afian held at the police headquarters of Yerevan’s central Kentron district. Ter-Petrosian arrived at the police building at around midnight as hundreds of his supporters stood outside it do demand the release of the arrested activists. They greeted him with “Levon! Levon!” chants.
Ter-Petrosian, accompanied by businessman and parliament deputy Khachatur Sukiasian, emerged from the building several minutes later to urge the crowd to “calm down.” “We are going to clear up everything,” he said. “Enjoy your cigarettes, exchange jokes and have fun.”
The Kentron police headquarters was earlier visited by three parliamentarians representing the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party as well as Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian. According to one of the parliament deputies, Zaruhi Postanjian, some of the detainees looked injured. But Harutiunian said he found no traces of violence on their faces and saw “beaten police officers” instead.
“They had no right to demand the megaphone,” Harutiunian told RFE/RL. “Every citizen who wants to organize a march has the right to propagate it by lawful means, including a megaphone.”
The oppositionists were set free after signing a pledge not to leave Yerevan pending the investigation. A defiant Pashinian held an improvised rally at the scene. “We have shown that we are not going to bow to lawlessness,” he said. “I told Sashik Afian that he will end up in jail.”
The outspoken editor also thanked Ter-Petrosian for arranging his and his comrades’ release. “For us, Levon Ter-Petrosian is now not only a presidential candidate but a comrade-in-arms,” he said to rapturous applause.
Friday’s rally is widely seen as a further step towards Ter-Petrosian’s participation in the upcoming presidential vote. The 62-year-old ex-president is increasingly emerging as the main challenger of the election favorite, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
Ter-Petrosian’s political allies say the authorities are increasingly worried about his political comeback and are doing everything to disrupt his rally. They point to the refusal by virtually all Armenian TV stations to air paid adverts notifying citizens about the upcoming rally. Mikael Hayrapetian, another Aylentrank leader, alleged that the authorities provoked Tuesday’s violent incident in order to “stem a big tide that could rise on October 26.”
Such claims were effectively endorsed by Zharangutyun, one of the two opposition parties represented in Armenia’s parliament. In a written statement, the party led by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian expressed serious concern at the “growing wave of repressions” in the country. It said the authorities have grown “panicky over possible internal political developments” and are trying to intimidate their political opponents.
Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian denied this during the government’s question-and-answer session in parliament on Wednesday. Abrahamian said the government is not interest in heightening political tention in the country. “But we can not allow several individuals to organize themselves to disrupt public order and commit hooligan acts in an organized fashion,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nazarian, the Yerevan police chief, issued a stern warning to organizers of Friday’s rally. “We won’t allow anyone to disrupt public order,” he said. “I have ordered policemen to be very strict and not allow any violation. All of that is being done for maintaining public order in Yerevan.”