By Emil Danielyan
A leading international human rights organization demanded on Friday that the Armenian authorities lift their effective ban on opposition demonstrations and end mass detentions of opposition supporters gathering in Yerevan.
“The Armenian government should allow peaceful demonstrations, not ban them,” Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement. “The new restrictions effectively punish peaceful demonstrators for the violence that took place on March 1.”
Cartner referred to controversial amendments to Armenia’s law on public gatherings that were passed by parliament last week. One of those amendments allows the Armenian police and the National Security Service (NSS) to ban rallies practically at will.
Another amendment allows the authorities to bar the opposition from rallying supporters for an unspecified period of time after street gatherings resulting in casualties. The ban shall remain in force until the end of the official investigation into a particular case of deadly street violence.
The authorities say the restrictions are needed for preventing a repeat of the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot police and supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian that left at least eight people dead. Ter-Petrosian and his allies insist, however, that they run counter to Armenia’s constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly.
“The new amendments violate Armenia’s obligation to respect peaceful assembly,” said HRW. “The European Convention on Human Rights, to which Armenia is a party, guarantees freedom of assembly, and governments may not place unreasonable restrictions on this right.”
“The European Court of Human Rights has described the right to assemble peacefully as “one of the foundations of a democratic society” and has made clear on a number of occasions that individuals cannot lose their right to peaceful assembly as a result of punishable acts committed by others in the course of a demonstration,” added the New York-based group.
The restrictions are clearly designed to prevent renewed opposition demonstrations following the lifting of a 20-day state of emergency in Yerevan on Friday. Hundreds of people have since been gathering in the city’s Northern Avenue leading to Liberty Square, the site of Ter-Petrosian’s massive post-election rallies which is currently guarded by police. The latter are trying to end the daily silent protests by randomly detaining dozens of their participants and releasing them without a charge several hours later.
According to the national Police Service, 46 people were taken into custody from Northern Avenue on Wednesday alone. Journalists at the scene counted at least 25 such detentions in the following days.
The mass detentions were also criticized on Friday by Joseph Pennington, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Armenia. “It’s hard for us to see how that is a constructive step,” Pennington said. “It’s hard to see how that has a positive effect. It’s hard to see what it does beyond making people frustrated and angry and increasing tension.”