In what they called an effort stave off “mass disturbances,” Armenian law-enforcement authorities arrested on Tuesday five leaders of a hardline opposition group that plans to launch later this month nonstop rallies aimed at toppling President Serzh Sarkisian.
Officers of the National Security Service (NSS) and the Investigative Committee also raided the Yerevan headquarters of the group called the Founding Parliament early in the morning, confiscating its computers, documents and campaigning material.
The search was still going on there in the afternoon, with Founding Parliament activists unable to enter their offices. They applauded sarcastically as NSS emerged from the building with the confiscated items.
The opposition movement’s top leader, Zhirayr Sefilian, and three of his close associates had their homes searched at around the same time. They were taken into custody afterwards. An RFE/RL correspondent saw Sefilian’s brother Toros also being taken away by NSS officers from the outspoken oppositionist’s Yerevan apparent.
Sefilian’s wife Nanore told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that about two dozen law-enforcement officials spent three hours looking for weapons in the apartment. She said they did not find any firearms and only confiscated a knife along with her and her husband’s and children’s computers.
Several other activists, among them the heads of Founding Parliament chapters in Gyumri, Vanadzor and Kapan, were also rounded up and questioned by the NSS. At least one of them, Karo Yeghnukian, was set free several hours later. Yeghnukian told reporters that he was asked questions about the Founding Parliament’s plans to begin nonstop anti-government rallies in Yerevan on April 24. The law-enforcement agency confirmed the fifth arrest later in the day.
The start of the campaign was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey, a fact criticized by some mainstream opposition parties. One of them, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), last month called on the authorities to take “preventive” measures against Sefilian’s movement.
In a statement, the Investigative Committee said that Sefilian and the three other senior Founding Parliament figures were arrested on suspicion on planning to stir up “mass disturbances” at the sites of genocide centenary commemorations that are expected to attract large crowds. It accused them of urging supporters to disobey and even attack security forces on April 24.
The Founding Parliament insisted late last week, however, that its street protests will not interfere with the genocide remembrance ceremonies in any way. The group also accepted municipal authorities’ proposal to rally supporters on April 24 and April 25 in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni suburb, rather than the city center. Accordingly, the authorities sanctioned the Erebuni rallies.
Nikol Pashinian, the leader of another opposition force, Civic Contract, cited this fact in a statement strongly condemning the crackdown on the Founding Parliament. He dismissed as “baseless” the allegations that Sefilian’s group is plotting violent protests.
The arrests also prompted strong condemnations from other opposition forces represented in the Armenian parliament. “Regardless of our attitudes towards the Founding Parliament’s political programs and slogans, we condemn these repressions directed against fundamental constitutional freedoms and demand the immediate release of the arrested individuals,” Levon Zurabian, the parliamentary leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), said on the parliament floor.
Zaruhi Postanjian, an outspoken lawmaker from the opposition Zharangutyun party, claimed that President Serzh Sarkisian personally ordered the “repressions.” “Mr. Sarkisian, I can understand your fears and state of panic,” she said in the parliament. “But you had better fear meeting the fate of [Ukraine’s deposed former President Viktor] Yanukovich and [Libya’s Muammar] Gaddafi and quit power willingly, quickly and without blood.”
Pashinian visited the five detained oppositionists later on Tuesday. In a Facebook post, he said they all consider their arrests illegal and are in a “resolute mood.” Pashinian also said that one of them, Pavel Manukian, has gone on a hunger strike.
Meanwhile, other Founding Parliament leaders remaining at large claimed that the opposition group was mindful of the possibility of arrests and made contingency plans for such a case. But they declined to reveal who will lead the movement now.
“We do realize that the authorities are looking for targets,” one of them, Vartan Hakobian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) “If they think that they can disrupt our movement by arresting Sefilian and others then they must realize that a popular movement usually does not depend on a single leader.”