Five Armenian police officers were suspended on Friday for using excessive force against participants of opposition demonstrations held late last month in support of gunmen that seized a police station in Yerevan.
The chief of the Armenian police, Vladimir Gasparian, also took disciplinary action against 14 other officers, saying that they failed to prevent violent attacks on protesters and journalists during one of those rallies.
The reprimanded officers include Ashot Karapetian, the chief of Yerevan’s police department, as well as the commander and two deputy commanders of a police regiment that was seized by the anti-government gunmen on July 17. The regiment is tasked with crowd control and street patrols.
Scores of people took to the streets to voice support for the gunmen’s demands that included President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation. Late on July 29, more than a thousand of them unexpectedly marched to Yerevan’s Sari Tagh neighborhood close to the besieged police compound in the city’s Erebuni district.
Firing stun grenades and tear gas, riot police dispersed the crowd after organizers of the protest ignored their demands to leave the “dangerous” area and go back to the city center. At least 60 people were injured and hospitalized as a result.
Armenia’s leading opposition parties as well as local and international human rights group strongly condemned that they consider the use of excessive force. The police responded by launching an “internal inquiry” into the violence.
A police statement released on Friday said that Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS), a law-enforcement body subordinate to prosecutors, will now decide whether the five suspended officers should face prosecution.
One of them, Colonel Lernik Yeranosian, is the brother of General Levon Yeranosian, the controversial commander of Armenian interior troops who played a key role in the Sari Tagh crackdown. The four others have lower ranks.
As the crowd fled Sari Tagh, many protesters and at least 14 journalists were ambushed and beaten up by a large group of men wielding sticks. Human rights groups and some media have suggested that the attackers were plainclothes officers or government loyalists.
The police said last week that Gasparian has ordered his high-ranking subordinates to identify “civilians who provoked clashes and assaulted participants of the gathering, journalists and police officers.”
An Armenian journalist, Tehmine Yenokian, alleged on Friday that two of those attackers are Gasparian’s bodyguards. She said one of them has a Facebook account registered in the name of a certain Gago Zohrabian.
Seeking to prove her allegations, Yenokian posted on social media video of the Sari Tagh violence and photographs of Gasparian surrounded by his security detail.
Yenokian claimed to have received threats from another Facebook user afterwards. “I consider those comments a serious threat,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
A police statement released later in the day confirmed that Zohrabian works for the police and was at Sari Tagh during the violent dispersal of the demonstration there. But it claimed that Zohrabian was on the contrary sent by Gasparian to the neighborhood to “verify reports” about the attacks on the journalists.
“G. Zohrabian was also subjected to violence on that day,” added the statement.
Daily rallies in support of the gunmen continued even after the latter surrendered to security forces on Sunday. But they drew smaller crowds.
On Thursday night, the police unexpectedly detained 27 people in Yerevan’s Liberty Square after they marched through the city center together with hundreds of other protesters. They all were released in the following hours.
The police attributed the detentions to unspecified violations of Armenia’s law on public gatherings. Human rights groups dismissed that explanation, accusing the authorities of trying to intimidate the gunmen’s supporters.