An opposition activist and prominent former boxer was arrested on Sunday on charges of assaulting police officers which he and Armenia’s largest opposition force condemned as politically motivated.
The Yerevan police said Samson Khachatrian used force against law-enforcement officers during a rally held by the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) on March 1.
According to Khachatrian’s family and lawyer, the HAK member, who was a renowned Soviet boxer in the 1970s and 1980s, only tried to stop plainclothes men from beating young women present at the rally.
“My father said, ‘Stop it, you must not hit the girls,’” Khachatrian’s son Sarkis told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “But they said, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ll smash your head.’ They then started shoving my father.’”
“They didn’t even say that they are policemen,” claimed Sarkis Khachatrian.
The HAK was quick to condemn the arrest, allege political motives behind the case and demand Khachatrian’s immediate release. In a statement, the opposition alliance said the activist was jailed as part of frantic government efforts to minimize attendance at its next rally scheduled for Thursday.
The HAK also said the arrest was triggered by Khachatrian’s harsh criticism of the Armenian authorities which he voiced in an interview with the pro-opposition daily “Chorrord Inknishkhanutyun” published on Saturday. “The regime got worried about the impact of the world-famous athlete’s words, and they decided to neutralize it in this way,” it said.
Khachatrian’s lawyer, Ara Zakarian, also saw a link between the criminal case and the newspaper interview. “If such an incident indeed took place [on March 1,] why didn’t they arrest him on the spot or the next day?” argued Zakarian.
Ashot Karapetian, the police chief of Yerevan’s central administrative district, insisted that Khachatrian’s political views and activities have nothing to do with his prosecution. “Nobody has the right to raise hand against a police officer, regardless of whether they are from the opposition or pro-government camp,” Karapetian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The arrest came the day after President Serzh Sarkisian claimed that he is untroubled by the HAK’s renewed campaign of antigovernment protests and described opposition leaders as responsible politicians who do not want to destabilize Armenia. Sarkisian also said that both the authorities and the opposition have made mistakes in the past and should not repeat them now.
Levon Zurabian, the HAK’s central office coordinator, accused Sarkisian of hypocrisy on Monday. “[Sarkisian’s] words are not backed up by actions,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“I would have been inclined to see [in Sarkisian’s remarks] some positive signals and even signs of readiness to take some steps, had there not been very incomprehensible, illegal [government] actions poisoning the atmosphere such as yesterday’s disgraceful arrest of Samson Khachatrian,” said Zurabian.