Armenian police have used force to thwart a small opposition protest in a central Yerevan square that re-opened only a few days ago after remaining closed to the public for nearly two years.
About a dozen activists gathered near one of the statues in Liberty Square on Friday evening protesting “human rights violations” in Armenia and calling for “an end to torture in the army and prisons”, including against several opposition members remaining in jail. They also held banners demanding that the government allow an independent television company controversially taken off the air eight years ago to resume broadcasts.
Acting on orders of Colonel Robert Melkonian, chief of the Armenian Police’s Patrol Service, police workers roughed up some of the protesters, trying to remove them from the square. They managed to force several activists to move across the streets telling them that their protest was disturbing public order. However, the oppositionists returned to Liberty Square some time later and attempted to continue their protest.
This was the first time opposition members attempted to hold a political gathering in the square after public access to it was allowed on Tuesday.
The square remained closed from September 2008 due to construction of a large underground car park that began several months after the violent dispersal of an opposition tent camp protesting the outcome of a disputed presidential election. The opposition has insisted that the launch of a construction project in the area was designed to prevent its members from staging more rallies in the square, which, since the anti-Soviet demonstrations in the late 1980s, had turned into a traditional place for political assemblies in Yerevan. The government has brushed aside the accusations.
While the square stayed closed, activists and supporters of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) would gather in an adjacent boulevard where they also regularly encountered police restrictions resulting in scuffles. Dozens of opposition members staging protests in Northern Avenue and elsewhere in the city have been detained by police in the past two years. Criminal cases have been brought against some of them for resisting police officers.
The police action against the presumed violation of public order also appeared to have affected some unsuspecting citizens who claimed they had been mistaken for demonstrators while they were taking an evening stroll in the capital’s favored public place.
“I am an ordinary citizen of the Republic of Armenia. Today is a public holiday, and I have come here to take a walk,” asserted one such person. “I asked the policeman to show me a map so I could see in which part of the city I was allowed to walk and where I was not.”
While police remained in control of the square, a number of protesters would not give up. One of them, Vardges Gaspari, told RFE/RL: “We won freedom in 1988. We will never again allow this freedom to be trampled upon.”
A senior HAK member told RFE/RL earlier this week that the Armenian opposition would seek to stage its next rally in the re-opened square, which he described as "the cradle of Armenian democracy". Levon Zurabian did not specify, however, when such a rally would be held.