Two police officers went on trial Tuesday, accused of using disproportionate force during the violent break-up of demonstrations staged by the Armenian oppositions in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election.
The case is a rare example of law-enforcement officials prosecuted in connection with the deadly March 1-2, 2008 clashes in Yerevan between opposition protesters and security forces.
The two low-ranking policemen, Andranik Manukian and Gegham Grigorian, are accused of beating up two civilians in the city center early on March 2, 2008. If convicted of abuse of power, they will face heavy fines, a ban on police service or a prison sentence of up to four years. State prosecutors have yet to specify the punishment they seek from a district court in Yerevan.
Both Manukian and Grigorian pleaded not guilty to the charge as they appeared before the court. Their lawyer, Vagharshak Gevorgian, accused the police of making his clients “scapegoats” and said the victims, still not identified by investigators, themselves provoked the violence.
“They started threatening police employees, swearing at them,” Gevorgian told the court. “True, Andranik Manukian and Gegham Grigorian are police employees. But they are also human beings who have emotions and their perception of the world and their own spiritual world.”
“They acted not like police officers but as private individuals. They used physical force … and tried to take those individuals to a police station,” he said, adding that the civilians were eventually let go.
The court rejected the lawyer’s demands to drop the charge leveled against the policemen. The trial prosecutor, Ashot Nadoyan argued that they both admitted during the pre-trial investigation that they had “no grounds to use physical force” against the two other men. Gevorgian claimed, however, that they did so because they had no defense counsel at that point.
Manukian and Grigorian are not the first police officers prosecuted in connection with the 2008 unrest that left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured. Another, more senior officer, was charged this summer with beating a man in Yerevan’s central Republic Square on March 1, 2008.
Also, Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) formally launched criminal proceedings in July in connection with the police mishandling of tear gas which is believed to have killed at least three opposition protesters who fought pitched battles with security forces in central Yerevan. But none of the policemen who fired tear gas capsules on that day is known to have been prosecuted so far.
The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), whose leader Levon Ter-Petrosian spearheaded the 2008 street protests, has dismissed these criminal cases as a smokescreen for what it calls a high-level cover-up of the “massacre.” It has repeatedly demanded the prosecution of former President Robert Kocharian and his top security officials who oversaw the suppression of the post-election rallies in Yerevan.