The Armenian government’s unprecedented crackdown on the opposition continued unabated on Wednesday, with law-enforcement bodies arresting 12 more supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and searching the offices of a major opposition party.
The arrests raised to at least 96 the total number of opposition leaders and activists jailed since last month’s disputed presidential election. According to the Office of the Prosecutor-General, 90 of them have been formally charged with plotting a coup d’etat, organizing and participating in “mass riots,” assaulting security officers and other grave crimes.
The accusations mainly stem from the March 1 violent confrontation in Yerevan between riot police and thousands of opposition protesters demanding a re-run of what they see as a rigged election. Senior prosecutors insisted on Wednesday that the clashes, which left at least eight people dead, were part of Ter-Petrosian’s plot to return to power by “destabilizing the situation in the country.” But they would not say whether the opposition leader too will be arrested and prosecuted on relevant charges.
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the official election winner, did not rule out such possibility as he meet with university students in Yerevan. “Levon Ter-Petrosian’s fate will be primarily decided by the people, not now, because in addition to legal responsibility there is also moral responsibility, there is also historical responsibility,” he said.
“Talk of Levon Ter-Petrosian to be arrested today or tomorrow is not true. Neither are the claims that nobody will dare to arrest Levon Ter-Petrosian,” added Sarkisian.
Outgoing President Robert Kocharian was also vague on the matter, stressing the need to punish “all those who created this situation.” “If we don’t do that, these provocative actions will continue. There are people who regard Armenia’s weakness and instability as beneficial for their political interests,” he said without naming anyone.
Most of the detainees are senior members of opposition parties who ran Ter-Petrosian’s national and local election campaign offices. One of them, Ararat Zurabian, is the chairman of the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), the country’s former ruling party of which the ex-president remains a member. Most members of the HHSh’s governing board are also under arrest. The party’s largely deserted headquarters was being searched by officers of the National Security Service late Wednesday.
Ter-Petrosian on Tuesday condemned the charges brought against his loyalists as politically motivated and said the “political repressions” unleashed by the ruling regime will further heighten post-election tensions in Armenia. He also reiterated his claims that the authorities themselves orchestrated the March 1 violence to crush his campaign for the holding of a repeat presidential election.
But Hakob Gharakhanian, a senior prosecutor involved in the ongoing criminal investigation, denied any political motives behind the crackdown. He claimed that some of the demonstrators who barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office opened fired at and wounded several dozen police and interior troops in accordance with Ter-Petrosian’s alleged coup plan.
Journalists at the scene, including an RFE/RL correspondent, did not witness any opposition supporters carrying firearms both during and after their fierce pitched battles with security forces. The latter fled the scene shortly after failing to disperse the crowd with truncheons, water cannons, tear gas and tracer bullets.
The law-enforcement authorities insist that they fired live rounds only into the air. But they have yet to explain just how at least seven of the protesters were shot dead during the clashes. An interior troop officer was also killed in still unclear circumstances.
Gharakhanian questioned the authenticity of a video clip of the violence circulating on the Internet which shows a group of special police officers opening automatic gunfire in the direction of the demonstrators. Nonetheless, he said, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian has instructed his subordinates to examine the footage and determine whether the police indeed shot at the crowd.
“Nobody fired live rounds at the demonstrators,” Gharakhanian told reporters. “Despite that, the prosecutor-general has issued a written order to investigate and give legal assessment to the actions of police officers.”
Underscoring their distrust of the Armenian security apparatus, the European Union and some international human rights organizations have called for an independent investigation into the deadliest street violence in Armenia’s history.
The Armenian government is unlikely to agree to such an investigation. Hovsepian, according to his spokeswoman Sona Truzian, told the head of the OSCE office in Yerevan late Tuesday that he is only ready to let “international experts” take part in forensic tests conducted by the investigators.