Organizers of the protests condemned the arrest of Avetik Chalabian, saying that it is part of government attempts to suppress the two-week opposition campaign for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s resignation.
Chalabian leads a small party that has voiced strong support for the campaign. He is also a co-founder of a private charity helping the Armenian military as well as border villages in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Investigators took Chalabian into custody after searching his Yerevan apartment on Thursday night. They also detained Emma Sargsian, a lecturer at the Armenian National Agrarian University.
The criminal case against them is based on a leaked audio of fragments of their conversations with the chairman of the university’s student council, Tornik Aliyan. Law-enforcement authorities say it shows that he was offered 2 million drams ($4,200) in return for ensuring the presence of 2,000 students at opposition rallies.
Aliyan was being interrogated by the Investigative Committee when RFE/RL’s Armenian Service contacted him by phone. He was unable to answer questions. The deputy chairman of the student council insisted that it was not Aliyan who secretly recorded the conversation with Chalabian and Sargsian.
Ruben Melikian, a lawyer representing the arrested lecturer, said the five-minute audio was doctored by the authorities and does not corroborate their allegations. He also noted that Aliyan is the first to talk about cash in the recording.
Opposition leaders went farther, saying that the recording is a government provocation aimed at discrediting their push for regime. One of them, Ishkhan Saghatelian, linked the case to recent days’ arrests and prosecution of a dozen other opposition activists.
Five of them are accused of assaulting several elderly residents of Gyumri hours before an opposition rally held there on May 8. The young men claimed after the incident that the pensioners provoked them by swearing and throwing eggs at them.
Two other activists were arrested a week ago on charges of paying people in Armavir province west of Yerevan to attend the anti-government protests. The accusations, strongly denied by them, are based on publicized excerpts from their secretly recorded phone conversation.
Saghatelian charged that the arrests are aimed at intimidating the opposition and its supporters. “All this pressure is only making us stronger,” he said.
The authorities have not launched criminal proceedings against any of the riot police officers accused by the opposition as well as human rights groups of disproportionate use of force. One policeman was caught on camera punching a protester last week while another officer spat at an opposition supporter a few days later.