By Shakeh Avoyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
The offices of two leading Armenian opposition parties were seized by police and their leaders went into hiding on Tuesday. The police also cut short a news conference by two other opposition leaders who vowed to continue to fight for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation.
Meanwhile, three opposition lawmaker remained under arrest for their active participation in the anti-Kocharian demonstration broken up by security forces the previous night. Two of them, Shavarsh Kocharian of the Artarutyun bloc and Aleksan Karapetian of the National Unity Party (AMK) were arrested at the scene. Law-enforcement authorities claimed that Kocharian (no relation to the Armenian president) was held carrying a weapon, a charge strongly denied by his supporters.
The third parliamentarian, Arshak Sadoyan, was taken away from his home in the morning. Officials said he could be charged with an attempt to “seize power.” Also arrested were two other prominent Artarutyun figures, former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian and former Deputy Health Minister Artak Zeynalian.
Also, the police visited the Yerevan apartment of another prominent opposition leader, Vazgen Manukian, with a search warrant. Manukian was not at home. His wife refused to let them in. The family of Artarutyun leader Stepan Demirchian received a similar visit later in the day. His mother also refused to allow a search.
The offices of the AMK and a major Artarutyun party, Hanrapetutyun, were ransacked by heavily armed police immediately after the brutal suppression of the anti-Kocharian protest on Baghramian Avenue leading to the presidential palace. Dozens of opposition activists were reportedly detained in the raids. Law-enforcement officials continued to occupy the offices as of Tuesday evening, refusing to let anyone in.
Fleeing the attacking special police units, the leaders of the two parties, Artashes Geghamian and Aram Sarkisian, found refuge in a secluded house off Baghramian Avenue together with some 30 people, including two RFE/RL correspondents. They were separately taken to unknown locations by supporters at dawn. Geghamian later contacted RFE/RL, alleging that the authorities are “terrorizing” his family members.
“It’s not about hiding. It’s about informing our rank-and-file about their further actions,” Geghamian said by phone. “If we are arrested that will be more difficult. It is Mr. Kocharian who is hiding behind barbed wire.”
“We must first analyze the situation and then decide which steps to take,” said another fugitive Hanrapetutyun leader, Albert Bazeyan.
The police also burst into the headquarters of another Artarutyun force, the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), at about the same time, breaking doors, smashing office equipment and arresting its senior members, including the party spokeswoman Ruzan Khachatrian. They left the building only to reappear at its entrance early in the afternoon just as HZhK leader Demirchian met reporters to comment the situation. The law-enforcement officers again left after prompting a noisy uproar from about 50 Demirchian supporters who gathered outside the building.
“What happened was a crime,” Demirchian said. “It was a military operation, a terror against the people, and the ruling coalition is also responsible. The special police attacked and beat the people from the National Assembly compound while our deputies were denied entry into the parliament.”
But Kocharian defended the use of force, saying through a spokesman that the opposition actions amounted to “political extremism.” He warned that further attempts to force him into resignation would be countered in the same way.
The presidential press secretary, Ashot Kocharian, said the opposition disrupted “the normal work” of the president and the parliament, thereby “endangering the country’s constitutional order.” “The demonstrators did not obey the legitimate orders of police officers,” the official said.
Kocharian discussed the situation on Friday with leaders of the pro-presidential majority in the Armenian. They effectively justified his actions.
The police, meanwhile, claimed that the protesters themselves assaulted security officers with stones and petrol bombs. “Police repeatedly warned demonstrators that their unlawful actions would be met with adequate reaction if they were to continue,” its chief spokesman, Sayad Shirinian said in televised remarks. “But, despite this, the transgressors went on for quite a long time with their anti-social actions. On top of this, in response to [our] warnings, they started moving menacingly toward police forces.”
However, various eyewitnesses insist that the eight-hour demonstration was peaceful until the riot police charged against its participants, using truncheons, water cannons and stun grenades.
There was no immediate reaction to the dramatic developments from the United States, Russia, the European Union and other pan-European organizations. The U.S. and German ambassadors to Armenia met with Demirchian on Friday but issued no public statements afterwards.
Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin, the head of the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, expressed concern at the tense situation during a meeting with Kocharian. Pryakhin told RFE/RL that the use of force against peaceful demonstrators is “unacceptable” but at the same time endorsed police claims that they behaved aggressively.
According to medical authorities in Yerevan, only 30 people were injured in the overnight clashes and 16 of them were hospitalized. However, many victims appeared to avoid hospitalization for fear of police reprisals. Police officers were reportedly deployed in hospitals to prevent any contact between beaten protesters and journalists.