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Armenian Unrest Probe In Deadlock


Armenia -- Riot police confront opposition protesters in Yerevan on March 1, 2008.

A bipartisan body conducting a supposedly independent inquiry into last year’s deadly post-election violence in Yerevan has been effectively paralyzed by mounting tensions between its members chosen by Armenia’s government and opposition.

A bipartisan body conducting a supposedly independent inquiry into last year’s deadly post-election violence in Yerevan has been effectively paralyzed by mounting tensions between its members chosen by Armenia’s government and opposition.

Vahe Stepanian, chairman of the Fact-Finding Group of Experts not linked with either rival camp, said on Monday that he has failed to reconcile his wrangling pro-government and pro-opposition colleagues and will step down as a result.

The five-member group was set up by President Serzh Sarkisian last October with the aim of collecting information that would shed more light on the causes of the March 1, 2008 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces. In accordance with an executive order signed by Sarkisian, the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) and Zharangutyun party each named one member of the group. Two other members were nominated by Armenia’s governing coalition loyal to the president.

The state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, picked the fifth member, Stepanian. The group elected the latter as its chairman when it met for the first time in November. Stepanian and the group’s two pro-government members caused a stir early this month they went on a two-week vacation, forcing a temporary suspension of the Western-backed inquiry.

The group resumed its work on May 17 only to suspend it again two days later because of Stepanian’s intention to resign. “The situation was becoming increasingly tense,” Stepanian told RFE/RL. “I hoped that if we didn’t meet for a while, tensions would ease. But the opposite happened.”

Stepanian said he will not continue to coordinate the inquiry despite being asked by Ombudsman Harutiunian to reconsider his decision. “I just can’t balance the two sides and ensure their cooperation anymore,” he said. “Maybe somebody else can.”

That tensions inside the investigative body are running high was confirmed by Robert Avagian, one of its two pro-government members. “Vahe Stepanian played the role of a balancer, but they put him into this situation,” Avagian said, referring to his pro-opposition colleagues.

One of them, Andranik Kocharian, said Stepanian should have acted faster. “If he didn’t want to work, then he should have either resigned as the group’s chairman or ended his membership in the group,” he said.

The group’s activities reached deadlock after it submitted its first report to a special commission of the Armenian parliament also investigating the deadly clashes. The confidential report, leaked to the opposition press late last month, focused on circumstances of the death of Captain Hamlet Tadevosian, one of the two police servicemen killed in pitched battles with opposition protesters who barricaded themselves in central Yerevan.

Tadevosian was apparently the first casualty of the fierce clashes that also left eight civilians dead. According to the Armenian law-enforcement authorities, he was killed by an explosive device thrown by one of the protesters. They have presented that as proof of their claims that some of the opposition supporters had firearms and that the use of lethal force against them was therefore justified.

In its leaked report, the Fact-Finding Group questioned these claims, saying that investigators failed to properly examine the officer’s body, clothes and flak jacket. It suggested that the grenade that killed him exploded by his waist, rather than feet, as is claimed by the investigators. Opposition representatives have construed this as an implicit assertion that Tadevosian held the grenade in his hand and set it off inadvertently.

Avagian revealed on Monday that he and the group’s other pro-government member, Gevorg Tovmasian, did not sign the report and disagree with its conclusions largely rejected by state prosecutors.
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