« back to Onnik Krikorian in Armenia home


Damning human rights reports on eve of 1 March post-election clash anniversary

| 2

April 9 Demonstration 109.jpg

Having narrowly escaped sanctions from the Council of Europe, and following controversy surrounding the trial of seven senior opposition figures arrested after last year's post-election violence, come two damning reports on the human rights and political situation in Armenia. Just 4 days before the first anniversary of the 1 March 2008 clashes which left at least 10 dead, Human Rights Watch released its report on the handling of the post-election violence which blames the authorities and police for the excessive and disproportionate use of force.

Police and protestors clashed in Armenia's capital Yerevan on March 1, 2008, bringing to a head the country's latest electoral dispute, over the results of a presidential poll in February. In the course of some 20 hours on March 1, in episodes at different city center locations, police variously set upon protestors without warning or resistance, negotiated, withdrew, returned to the offensive, and finally fought a pitched battle with a small group of protestors. At least ten people died-eight protestors and two police officers-and scores were injured.

[...] it is clear from multiple accounts that at various times police deployed excessive use of force, beating demonstrators who were not behaving aggressively, and some of the police use of firearms appears to have been indiscriminate or disproportionate. The fact that police were themselves under attack at times does not excuse those incidents where their own use of force was excessive. Neither does it excuse ill-treatment and torture of detained persons, nor the denial of due process rights such as access to lawyers of choice. link

And as if that wasn't enough at a time when political tensions had significantly eased inside the country,  but risked escalating as the capital prepares for an unsanctioned opposition rally to be held to mark the anniversary this Sunday, the U.S. State Department issued its annual Human Rights Report. Again, the 19 February presidential election, the 1 March clashes, and the ensuing 20-day state of emergency feature prominently in it along with other outstanding issues of concern.

On March 1-2, authorities used force to disperse large crowds of demonstrators protesting the conduct and results of the election; clashes between protesters and security forces resulted in the deaths of 10 persons. Authorities imposed a 20-day state of emergency following the violence. [...] Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, although some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses with impunity while under the direction of civilian leadership.

The government's human rights record deteriorated significantly during the year, with authorities and their agents committing numerous human rights abuses, particularly in connection with the presidential elections and the government's suppression of demonstrations that followed. Authorities denied citizens the right to change their government freely and citizens were subject to arrest, detention, and imprisonment for their political activities. Authorities used force, at times lethal, to disperse political demonstrations. Authorities used harassment and intrusive application of bureaucratic measures to intimidate and retaliate against government opponents. Police beat pretrial detainees and failed to provide due process in some cases. The National Security Service (NSS) and the national police force acted with impunity for alleged human rights abuses. Authorities engaged in arbitrary arrest and detention. link

Meanwhile, as Yerevan prepares for Sunday's first major opposition rally to mark the anniversary, nobody is quite sure how things will play out. The police, however, have already stated that they will not tolerate any public disorder and it can be expected that the presence of security personal will be significant. Indeed, police say they will retain a presence until 7am on the morning of 2 March. I'll post photos and an update on the evening of 1 March or, depending on what happens, the following day.

For now, diplomatic sources in Yerevan say they are not anticipating any trouble, but Embassies have warned their citizens in the country to stay away from locations where demonstrations and marches are due to take place. Incidentally, I'll be twittering any significant developments as the day progresses, assuming the mobile phone network isn't over-saturated.

April 9 Demonstration 248.jpg

Photos: Remembering the victims of the 1 March post-election clashes 40 days later on the day of the presidential inauguration, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008



Onnik Krikorian | February 28, 2009 11:25 AM | Reply

Frontline blogger and Al Jazeera English correspondent Matthew Collin has this on the anniversary of the 1 March disturbances from the perspective of the family of its victims and those still in detention:

Armenia accused of 'flawed' trials

In a corner of Alla Hovannisian's living room in Yerevan is a small memorial to her son, with religious icons, fresh flowers, and an old school photograph.

Tigran died when he was 23, during civil unrest in the Armenian capital on March 1 last year, violence which shocked and divided this small country.

His mother says that when she first heard that he had been killed, she refused to believe it.

"I said it must be a mistake, it must be someone else's body in the morgue, and my husband went a second time to check," she recalls.

Pitched battles raged into the early hours of the morning after riot police moved in to end more than a week of demonstrations against the results of presidential elections which the opposition claimed were falsified.
The night sky was lit up with tracer bullet fire and flames rose from burning cars as police fired tear gas and fought with protesters who had set up barricades and armed themselves with petrol bombs and metal staves.

Alla's son was one of several people who were shot during the clashes which left eight civilians and two policemen dead, causing the Armenian authorities to impose a state of emergency and send the army onto the streets.



Onnik Krikorian | February 28, 2009 12:58 PM | Reply

So far, it looks as though nothing dramatic will happen tomorrow as most of us also believe. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that the extra-parliamentary opposition will be able to rally more than between 10-15,000 people which is not enough to confront the police even if they planned to (and so far there has been no talk of using the event to launch a new campaign of street protests as the opposition did a year after the disputed 2003 presidential election). Meanwhile, the police have also made it clear that although the rally and march has not been sanctioned, they will not interfere or disperse it.

The Armenian police indicated on Friday that they will not try to disperse thousands of people who are expected to rally on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of the 2008 post-election clashes in Yerevan.

The main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) plans to rally supporters outside the Matenadaran institute of ancient manuscripts and then stage a march through the city despite the municipal authorities’ refusal to authorize the protest.

Major-General Alik Sargsian, chief of the national police, made clear that the police will not enforce the ban. “The police are very calm,” he said. “Nothing [bad] is expected on March 1. Our people understand everything.”

“We too will act like victims. We too suffered casualties, our people also died on that day,” Sargsian told a news conference, referring to the deaths of two police servicemen in the March 1, 2008 clashes with opposition supporters that barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office. The violence also left eight civilians dead.

Sargsian said the police will use force only in the event of “any violation of public order.” “But we are convinced that people will calmly gather, pay their respects [to the March 1 victims] and go home,” he said.

As the police chief spoke to journalists, the HAK issued a statement urging law-enforcement bodies to work together with the opposition alliance in making sure that the upcoming rally is peaceful. Levon Zurabian, a senior HAK representative, said the organizers will take “unprecedented measures to maintain order during rally” and warned the police against taking “provocative actions.” “We are urging the police to cooperate, not to create problems, not to provoke the people,” he said.

[...] link

Nevertheless, nobody can say for sure that the event will pass off without incident, but all indications are that the opposition is not out to look for a fight and on the government's side, it can really do without any trouble following the international backlash against the 1 March 2008 clashes. Previous rallies since the state of emergency was lifted were the same with police not interfering with unsanctioned rallies and opposition leaders maintaining control over their supporters. Even so, I know one bar in Yerevan that says it will close tomorrow and board up its door just in case.

However, such an action seems unwarranted in the present climate and even last year, the looting and clashes were isolated and not widespread.

What do you think?