By Karine Kalantarian
A high-ranking police official on Tuesday defended and assumed personal responsibility for the break-up of the Armenian opposition’s non-stop post-election protests in Yerevan’s Liberty Square which led to the deadliest street violence in the country’s history.
Thousands of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian set up a tent camp there the day after the disputed February 19 presidential election which they believe was rigged in favor of then Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Up to 2,000 of them spent nights in the square and were joined by tens of thousands of other protesters in daytime until they were dispersed by riot police in the early hours of March 1.
Scores of the campers were injured and arrested by security forces armed by batons and electric-shock guns, while others managed to flee the scene and regroup elsewhere in the city center. The crowd rapidly grew in size as it barricaded itself at a sprawling street junction outside the Yerevan mayor’s office later in the day. At least eight civilians and two interior troops were killed in ensued pitched battles that ended the next morning after a state of emergency declared by then President Robert Kocharian.
Major General Sasha Afian, a deputy chief of the national police, gave some details of the Liberty Square violence as he testified before an Armenian parliamentary commission investigating the post-election unrest. Afian said he personally ordered some 600 officers from various police divisions to enter the square and “restore public order.” “I am the one who gave the order after the incident,” he said.
Afian reiterated the official version of the events whereby the police decided to break up the unsanctioned protest only after the demonstrators led by Ter-Petrosian refused to allow them to search the square. He claimed that the police received on February 29 “reliable information” that he protesters will be handed out firearms, explosives, iron bars and other weapons to stage a coup d’etat allegedly planned by Ter-Petrosian.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian told the parliament earlier that law-enforcement authorities received such information on February 19. Afian gave no clear explanation for the discrepancy when pressed by commission members.
Ter-Petrosian and his associates have strongly denied the government claims, saying that the security forces issued no warnings before attacking the crowd. The official justification for the use of force has also been questioned by Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman.
“If 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?” Harutiunian asked in an extensive report released in late April. The report also said that the purported search also violated Armenia’s Code of Procedural Justice requires court warrants and the presence of witnesses in such cases.
“All the demonstrators were witnesses,” Afian commented in that regard.