Some 50 supporters of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) clashed with riot police as they again attempted to enter Liberty Square in the city center. More than a dozen of them were forced into police vans and driven to a nearby police station. Also detained on the spot were three journalists working for newspapers critical of the Armenian government.
All but three of them were set free about four hours later. The police department of Yerevan’s central Kentron district declined to give precise reasons for their arrest.
Colonel Robert Melkonian, the chief of the national riot police force, defended the use of force against the oppositionists. “They are coming in groups to stage protests here. What for?” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“These people have the right to rest,” Melkonian said, pointing to other Yerevan residents who were allowed into the square. “See, there are more than 100 people enjoying themselves here. There are whole families, children.”
The square facing the city’s massive Opera House was reopened late last week 21 months after it was closed due to the construction of a large underground parking garage. President Serzh Sarkisian personally inaugurated the facility together with top executives of an Italian company that built it.
Small groups of HAK activists and supporters have tried unsuccessfully to gather there since Friday. Six of them, including the HAK’s foreign policy spokesman Vladimir Karapetian, were detained and kept in police custody for several hours on Sunday.
Karapetian denounced the arrests as illegal and insisted that the oppositionists did not intend to hold a demonstration there. “We just wanted to stroll there,” he told RFE/RL before Monday’s violence.
“When people with particular faces are not allowed to enter Liberty Square, that is an apartheid of sorts,” he said.
A police statement said Karapetian was taken to the Kentron police headquarters because he urged passersby to hold an unsanctioned rally. It also claimed that the six other oppositionists shouted abuse at police officers.
The square was dug up and closed to the public several months later. The Ter-Petrosian-led opposition has had to rally supporters in another, less convenient and smaller, square since then. A senior HAK member told RFE/RL on May 24 that it will seek to stage its next rally in Liberty Square.
Melkonian indicated, however, that the Armenian authorities want to make the square permanently off-limits to the opposition bloc. “Do you remember the time when they pitched tents and set bonfires in the square?” he said. “Do you want a repeat of that situation?”
“After all, there is a car park under the square,” added the police official. “Large numbers of people must not gather here. If 100, 150 or 200 persons gather here today, this square will become a rally site tomorrow.”