The Armenian police ended on Wednesday weeklong exercises during which they
tested new crowd control techniques and equipment aimed at avoiding casualties among anti-government protesters in the future.
Hundreds of interior troops and other police forces clad in riot gear simulated dispersal of unsanctioned or violent rallies at the Arzni military airfield about 20 kilometers north of Yerevan. They used water cannons, armored vehicles, and other equipment.
Vladimir Gasparian, the national police chief who monitored the final session of the exercises, said they reflect a major change in police behavior during street protests. “I think that the police have proved that their use of force is now adequate,” he told reporters. “This is irreversible.”
The police adopted in late 2011 new “guidelines” for crowd control developed with expert assistance from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Those specify the types of “special means” which riot police can use to deal with “armed resistance” and demonstrations that turn violent and “endanger public safety.” They include batons, electric-shock guns, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
The guidelines make no reference to Russian-made tear gas capsules that were mishandled by police officers during the March 2008 post-election clashes in Yerevan which left eight opposition protesters and two police personnel dead. Four of the civilian victims are believed to have been killed by such capsules. The others were shot dead by live rounds fired by security forces.
“I rule out use of firearms against our people under any circumstances,” declared Gasparian. “If someone is to die, let me be the first victim.”
Asked whether he thinks the police used disproportionate force in 2008, Gasparian said, “I can’t make evaluations because I didn’t manage or participate in that operation.”
“We have special means. Only some of them are being demonstrated here,” added the police general.
The March 2008 events were the worst street violence in Armenia’s history that still reverberates on the local political scene. The Armenian authorities insist that they used deadly force to end “mass disturbances” organized by close associates of opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian with the aim of toppling the government. Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian National Congress (HAK) vehemently deny the official theory, saying that the authorities deliberately killed people after a fraudulent presidential election.