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First Anniversary Of Yerevan Police Attack Marked


Armenia - Flowers are laid at a memorial in Yerevan to police officers killed during a July 2016 standoff with opposition gunmen, 17Jul2017.

The Armenian police marked on Monday the first anniversary of an armed attack on one of their bases in Yerevan, unveiling a memorial to three police officers killed during a two-week standoff with members of a radical opposition group.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people rallied in the Armenian capital in a show of solidarity with the arrested gunmen, some of whom went on trial last month.

The 30 or so gunmen seized the police base in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district and took several police officers hostage on July 17, 2016. They demanded President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and the release of Zhirayr Sefilian, the jailed leader of their Founding Parliament movement.

Sefilian was arrested on June 20, 2016 for allegedly plotting an armed revolt against the government. He is currently standing a separate trial on charges which he rejects as politically motivated.

Security forces avoided storming the Erebuni facility during the standoff, which also sparked anti-government demonstrations by thousands of people. Instead, they shot and wounded some of the armed oppositionists. The 20 remaining gunmen holed up in the compound surrendered to the authorities on July 31, hours after freeing medics who were also held hostage in the besieged compound.

The trial of the 18 key members and supporters of the armed group, which called itself “Sasna Tsrer” (Daredevils of Sasun), began on June 8. The defendants are facing a wide range of charges, including illegal seizure of government buildings and weapons and hostage taking.

Two of them also stand accused of murdering the three police officers. They deny the accusations.

The memorial to the slain policemen -- Colonel Artur Vanoyan and Warrant Officers Gagik Mkrtchian and Yuri Tepanosian -- was unveiled inside the Erebuni base at a ceremony attended by their colleagues and relatives. The chief of the national police service, Vladimir Gasparian, was also in attendance. Gasparian refused to talk to reporters after laying flowers there.

Valeri Osipian, a deputy chief of Yerevan’s police department who was held hostage in the sprawling compound for several days, also declined a comment. “Excuse me but I would like to stay silent today,” Osipian told journalists.

Armenia - People demonstrate in support of opposition gunmen who seized a police station in Yerevan in July 2016, 17Jul2017.
Armenia - People demonstrate in support of opposition gunmen who seized a police station in Yerevan in July 2016, 17Jul2017.

The attack anniversary was also marked by hundreds of radical opposition supporters who gathered in Yerevan’s Liberty Square later in the day. They marched through the city center, holding pictures of some of the arrested oppositionists and chanting “Sasna Tsrer!” and “Death to the regime!”

Among the protesters was Zaruhi Postanjian, the outspoken leader of the opposition Yerkir Tsirani party. She said the Erebuni gunmen are “heroes” who took the first step towards the creation of a “free and independent Armenia.”

“The current regime is as dangerous as our external enemy,” Postanjian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) during the march.

Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), denounced the Erebuni attack as a “terrorist act,” however. “For me, attacks on our state borders and the police regiment [in Erebuni] have the same gravity,” he said. “Not to mention the killing of Armenian officers. That is unacceptable and condemnable.”

Davit Sanasarian, an opposition activist who actively participated in July 2016 rallies in Yerevan, rejected Sharmazanov’s characterization. “This cannot be regarded as terrorism in any way because terrorism is a process of mass murders and mass intimidation,” Sanasarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Quite the opposite happened [after the seizure of the Erebuni police facility.] People turned out and applauded the rebels.”

Zhanna Aleksanian, a human rights activist, agreed. “The Sasna Tsrer probably wanted to wake up the people, to make them rise up. What they tried to do was an uprising,” she said, accusing the authorities of unleashing “mass repressions” against the gunmen’s supporters during the July 2016 standoff.

Armenia - A general view of Erebuni police station seized by gunmen and supporters of fringe jailed opposition leader Zhirair Sefilian, in Yerevan, July 30, 2016
Armenia - A general view of Erebuni police station seized by gunmen and supporters of fringe jailed opposition leader Zhirair Sefilian, in Yerevan, July 30, 2016

Aleksanian also said that the radical oppositionists opted for armed struggle because regime change through elections is impossible in Armenia due to chronic electoral fraud.

Sharmazanov dismissed that argument, saying that parliamentary elections held in Armenia in April were not followed by customary opposition demonstrations against alleged vote rigging. “We don’t need upheavals,” he added. “We need a strong Armenia. A strong Armenia cannot be created by fratricide.”

The United States condemned the Erebuni attack, while urging the authorities in Yerevan to exercise “appropriate restraint.” The European Union likewise said during the standoff that “the use of force to achieve political change is unacceptable.”

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