The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights on Friday called for an independent investigation into Armenia’s deadly post-election unrest and said opposition supporters arrested by the authorities in recent weeks have been ill-treated in custody.
Thomas Hammarberg spent the past three days meeting government and opposition leaders in Yerevan and visiting hospitals that have treated scores of people injured in the March 1 clashes between riot police and supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. He was also allowed to visit some of more than 100 Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested on a string of charges mainly relating to those clashes.
“There have been cases where there were problems,” Hammarberg said of his meetings in Armenian prisons. “Some of those arrested have been beaten, which of course is not acceptable.”
“Several of those I have talked to in prison feel that they are absolutely innocent and that they only expressed only their opinions,” he told RFE/RL before returning to Strasbourg.
Hammarberg stopped short of describing any of the detainees as political prisoners, saying only that he urged President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian to limit the ongoing prosecutions only to “those cases where there is real proof that people have committed violent crimes.” “It is important now to avoid any tendency towards bringing in people because of their political positions,” he said.
Kocharian, Sarkisian and Armenia’s top law-enforcement officials deny any political motives behind the mass arrests which they say were needed for thwarting a coup d’etat allegedly plotted by Ter-Petrosian and his top allies. The authorities say the use of force against thousands of opposition supporters who demonstrated in Yerevan against the official results of Armenia’s disputed presidential election was therefore justified. At least seven protesters and one security officer were killed as a result.
Hammarberg appeared to have serious misgivings about the official version of events, echoing the European Union’s calls for an independent investigation into the worst street violence in the country’s history. “I really think that there is a need for a professional, independent and impartial inquiry into what happened,” he said, adding that it should be conducted by special commission made up of individuals “trusted by the public.”
In Hammarberg’s words, international experts could also assist in the conduct of the probe. “That inquiry is so important for Armenia,” he said.
The Council of Europe official said he also told Kocharian and Sarkisian that the recent day’s easing of civil liberty restrictions stemming from the state of emergency in Yerevan is “not sufficient” and specifically urged them to abolish “censorship” of the Armenian media. He said that is important for defusing the post-election tensions in Armenia.
“There are real problems in Armenia today,” said Hammarberg. “The society is divided. There is polarization.”