By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s top state official in charge of human rights protection on Friday again challenged the official version of deadly post-election violence in Yerevan and, in particular, government claims that opposition protesters carried weapons and fired at security forces.
Ombudsman Armen Harutiunian also echoed international calls for an independent investigation into the March 1 clashes that left at least ten people dead and more than 160 others injured.
The Armenian authorities have defended the use of lethal force against thousands of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian who barricaded themselves on a street junction outside the Yerevan mayor’s office hours after the break-up of their 10-day sit-in in the city’s Liberty Square. They say security forces that tried to disperse the angry crowd were not only pelted with stones and Molotov cocktails but also came under gunfire. They also point to the looting of several shops and burning of dozens of cars that followed the police retreat from one of the streets leading to the vast area.
Harutiunian questioned the official theory in the immediate aftermath of the worst street violence in Armenia’s history, prompting harsh criticism from then President Robert Kocharian. The latter ordered troops into the capital and declared a 20-day state of emergency to quell the opposition campaign for a re-run of last February’s disputed presidential election.
Harutiunian stood by and elaborated on his critical statements in a 80-page report that detailed the dramatic events of March 1. The report says that the Armenian police have so far failed to publicize any evidence of the use of firearms by the protesters.
Law-enforcement authorities say two of the victims, both of them interior troops servicemen, died of severe wounds caused by an explosive device and a bullet allegedly fired from the crowd. They say dozens of other soldiers and police officers were also shot and wounded in pitched battles with Ter-Petrosian supporters.
The ombudsman said that investigators have not yet explained the precise circumstances of the death of at least eight civilians, most of whom had fractured skulls. The authorities insist that security forces fired only into the air. Harutiunian pointed in that regard to an amateur video clip that shows a group of heavily armed and masked troops firing in front of them. He also described as “suspicious” the fact that the looting occurred hundreds of meters away from the epicenter of the protest and that shops and other businesses located within the barricaded area were left intact.
The ombudsman’s report stresses that the deadly clashes were sparked by the early-morning dispersal of some 2,000 Ter-Petrosian supporters camped out in Liberty Square. The police say that they had to break up the non-stop sit-in only after the protesters refused to allow them to search the square for weapons. They claim to have found pistols and hand grenades there. Those have been repeatedly shown on state television.
Harutiunian cast doubt on the credibility of these claims. “If, as was presented by Public Television, fleeing demonstrators left guns behind them, then why is it that during their dispersal, which was accompanied by beatings and resistance, not a single gunshot was fired?” he asks in the report. The report says the purported search also violated Armenia’s Code of Procedural Justice that requires court warrants and the presence of witnesses in such cases.
The report further concludes that contrary to police assurances, the campers led by Ter-Petrosian were not warned to disperse before being attacked by scores of police and interior troops. “Furthermore, the protesters were not given any time to stop the rally,” it says. “According to witnesses, demonstrators were not even able to get out of the [police] cordon unharmed.”
Armenia’s law on rallies and demonstrations stipulates that riot police can use force to stop an unsanctioned street protest only twice warning its organizers and participants. In Harutiunian’s words, the police also failed to issue such warnings later in the morning of March 1 as they tried unsuccessfully to stop opposition supporters gathering outside the mayor’s office. The police left the area in the afternoon after the crowd rapidly grew in size.