By Karine Kalantarian and Shakeh Avoyan
The Armenian authorities, bracing for an opposition offensive, have renewed their recourse to wholesale arrests of people attending opposition rallies — a practice repeatedly condemned by the Council of Europe and other international organizations.
A spokesman for the national Police Service told RFE/RL on Tuesday that 48 opposition activists and supporters were detained following Monday’s unsanctioned demonstration in Yerevan that was organized by the opposition National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian. He said 10 of them were released after receiving verbal “warnings,” while others were briefly jailed or fined under Armenia’s Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offences.
According to the National Unity deputy chairman, Sarkis Muradkhanian, eleven of them were sentenced overnight to between four and seven days in prison in trials which he dismissed as mere formalities. Muradkhanian claimed that one party activist detained at the site of the rally was beaten up by police officers for shouting “Long live Geghamian!” on his way to a police station.
Another major opposition party, Hanrapetutyun (Republic), reported more than 20 imprisonments of its members on. Suren Sureniants, a senior Hanrapetutyun member arrested at the weekend, was formally charged on Tuesday with “calling for a violent overthrow of constitutional order” and “publicly insulting government officials” at another opposition rally held in late February. A Yerevan court promptly allowed prosecutors to keep him in custody pending their criminal investigation into the growing opposition campaign against President Robert Kocharian.
Sureniants has denied the charges, describing himself as a “political hostage” of the ruling regime. His party is a leading member of the Artarutyun alliance that plans to launch this Friday “decisive” protests against Kocharian jointly with Geghamian’s National Unity.
Hundreds of opposition supporters already faced administrative detentions during and in the aftermath of last year’s presidential elections criticized as undemocratic by Western observers. Virtually all of them were sentenced in closed trials without access to lawyers for allegedly committing “hooligan acts.” The street protests were remarkably peaceful, however.
The 2003 crackdown was condemned by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has long been pushing for the scrapping of corresponding provisions of the Administrative Code, a relic from the Soviet era which human rights groups view as a powerful tool of government repression. As Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee put it recently, Armenian courts serve as “notaries” in such cases, routinely rubber-stamping arbitrary arrests.
In a resolution on Armenia adopted last January, the PACE said it is “shocked by the scandalous use that continues to be made of the arbitrary procedures concerning administrative detention.” The resolution renewed calls for sweeping amendments to the Administrative Code.
Like in 2003, the authorities sealed off on Monday roads leading to Yerevan in an apparent effort to prevent opposition supporters outside the capital from attending the Geghamian rally. A photojournalist from a local newspaper was detained and kept by the police for an hour after taking the pictures of one such roadblock.
The chief of the Yerevan police, Nerses Nazarian, claimed that the measure is meant to “control crime” and is not politically motivated. He also confirmed that scores of opposition activists around the country have been rounded up and questioned by the police. He referred to the process as “prophylactic conversations” with citizens who behaved “aggressively” at past opposition protests.
But Geghamian charged that the police actions were ordered by Kocharian to deter ordinary Armenians from taking to the streets. “The leadership of Armenia has stepped on the path of repressions, merged with criminal elements and is driving the people to civil war,” he told reporters.