TOL: A Dictator in the Making

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
June 24 2004

A Dictator in the Making

YEREVAN, Armenia – Handcuffed and defenseless, Grisha Virabian endured
hours of merciless blows to his crotch and sides. Only after a night
of agonizing pain was he reluctantly allowed to undergo surgery. As a
result of his torture, one of his testicles had to be removed. But
the person who may find himself in jail is Virabian, not one of his
sadistic interrogators. The charge: that he put up resistance.

Virabian’s cardinal sin, though, was to lead a group of a hundred
people from Artashat, a town 30 kilometers south of Yerevan, on a
march to the Armenian capital on 9 April. There, they joined up with
the country’s main opposition groups, which had begun a campaign of
street protests aimed at toppling President Robert Kocharian, a man
controversially reelected last year. Police officers visited his home
on an almost daily basis until he stopped hiding and showed up for
interrogation on 23 April. Virabian, 44, says he was first assaulted
by Hovannes Movsisian, head of the criminal investigations division
at the Artashat police, and hit the latter in the face in
self-defense with a mobile phone recharging device lying on a table.
This is what apparently made the officers go berserk.

Yet if one is to believe the Armenian authorities, Virabian himself
is the culprit because he attacked a `state official performing his
duties.’ Criminal charges, carrying up to three years’ imprisonment,
have already been brought by prosecutors in Yerevan. Virabian has
been cross-examined face to face with a dozen Artashat police
officers, all of them testifying that he went on a rampage at their
headquarters. `They avoided looking me in the eyes,’ says this
soft-spoken father of two.


The case against Virabian has become a potent symbol of unprecedented
repression unleashed by Kocharian in response to the opposition drive
for regime change, repression that is turning Armenia into a vicious
police state where human rights are worth nothing when they threaten
the ruling regime’s grip on power. Hundreds of people around the
country have been rounded up, detained, mistreated, and imprisoned
over the past three months in blatant violation of the law. About two
dozen opposition activists have faced prosecution on trumped-up
criminal charges.

The crackdown demonstrates that an independent judiciary is as
nonexistent in contemporary Armenia as it was in the Soviet era. It
also shows that Armenia’s corrupt law enforcement bodies are growing
even more brutal in their treatment of ordinary citizens. In an
ominous sign for the country’s democratic future, they have been
given a new KGB-style function of keeping track of and suppressing
opposition activity. This is especially true of the areas outside
Yerevan, where just about everyone challenging the regime is on the
police watch list.

`Armenia has taken a big step backward in the past three months in
terms of human rights protection,’ says Vartan Harutiunian, a
prominent human rights campaigner who himself spent eight years in
Soviet labor camps as a political prisoner. `We are now firmly on a
path leading to dictatorship.’

The most common (and benign) form of political persecution has been
`administrative’ imprisonments for up to 15 days for participants in
opposition demonstrations. Hundreds are believed to have faced such
punishment under the Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses for
allegedly `disrupting order’ or defying police. In reality, they were
simply randomly detained by plainclothes police officers after
virtually every opposition rally this spring and were promptly
sentenced in closed overnight trials without being granted access to
lawyers. Judges hearing such cases usually act like notaries,
rubber-stamping police fabrications. The purpose of the
administrative arrests seems obvious: to discourage as many Armenians
from attending anti-Kocharian protests as possible.

The practice, equally widespread during last year’s disputed
presidential election, has been strongly and repeatedly condemned by
domestic and international human rights groups. The Parliamentary
Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) again called for its
immediate end in a resolution on the political crisis in Armenia
adopted on 28 April.

The arrests pale in comparison with other human rights abuses. As the
campaign for Kocharian’s ouster gained momentum in late March scores
of opposition activists in various parts of the country were rounded
up for what the police described as `prophylactic conversations.’ The
oppositionists said they were bullied and warned against
participating in the upcoming rallies in Yerevan.

The first major show of government force came at an opposition rally
in Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri on 28 March. Authorities
there refused to sanction the protest, saying that they could not
guarantee its security because the local police were too busy solving
a serious crime. The rally went ahead but was nearly disrupted by
several men who threw eggs at organizers. They, as it turned out,
were police officers. Some opposition activists hardly knew this when
they clashed with the men and were arrested on the spot by dozens of
other plainclothes police. Four of the activists were eventually
sentenced to between nine and 15 months in prison for `hooliganism.’

Tension rose further when the opposition, buoyed by the success of
the November `rose revolution’ in neighboring Georgia, took its
campaign to Yerevan. The authorities effectively disrupted transport
between the capital and the rest of the country in a bid to reduce
attendance at the opposition rallies.

The confrontation culminated in a march on 12 April by thousands of
opposition supporters in the direction of Kocharian’s official
residence in the city center. Baton-wielding riot police stopped the
crowd from approaching the presidential palace and brutally dispersed
it in the early hours of 13 April, using water cannons, stun
grenades, and, according to some eyewitness accounts, electric-shock
equipment. The security forces left no escape routes for the fleeing
protesters, relentlessly beating and arresting scores of them.

This was immediately followed by the police ransacking and the
closure of the offices of the three largest opposition parties. Among
those arrested were more than a dozen women working for the most
radical opposition party, Hanrapetutiun (Republic). Some of them
later gave harrowing accounts of mistreatment and humiliation at the
hands of the police chief in Yerevan’s Erebuni district, Nver
Hovannisian. One young woman told a Human Rights Watch researcher,
`He came in and said, `Ah, it was you who was at the protest.’ I said
`No, it wasn’t me.’ He began to beat me with his fists and knees to
my stomach. I fell and he kicked me on my back. He said, `Now all our
men will come in and rape you.’ ‘

The crackdown also saw the worst-ever violence against Armenian
journalists. Four were severely beaten by the police while covering
how police broke up the 12-13 April demonstration. According to Hayk
Gevorgian of the Haykakan Zhamanak daily, the deputy chief of the
national police service, General Hovannes Varian, personally
confiscated his camera and then ordered subordinates to attack him.
Gevorgian had already lost a camera a week before that when he and
other photographers and cameramen pictured a group of burly men
attempting to disrupt another opposition rally in Yerevan. Almost all
of them had their cameras smashed by the thugs, who reportedly work
as `bodyguards’ for some government-connected tycoons. Police
officers led by Varian stood by and watched, refusing to intervene.

The authorities made an awkward attempt to dispel the widespread
belief that they orchestrated the ugly scene by having a Yerevan
court fine two of the thugs $180 each on 10 June. It was a travesty
of justice, with about 30 well-built men packing the courtroom and
refusing to let anyone in. They gave in only after a plea (not an
order) from the court chairman. `We were twice humiliated, first in
the street and then in the court,’ said Anna Israelian, a veteran
correspondent for the Aravot daily who was attacked by the one of the


Strangely enough, international reaction to the events in Armenia has
been rather muted. Only Human Rights Watch has made an explicit
condemnation of the `cycle of repression’ in a detailed report on 4
May. The PACE resolution also criticized the crackdown, threatening
Yerevan with political sanctions. However, the Strasbourg-based
assembly’s official in charge of assessing Armenia’s compliance with
the resolution, Jerzy Jaskiernia, is notorious for his leniency
toward Kocharian’s regime. The Polish parliamentarian’s fact-finding
trip to Yerevan on 11-14 June was marred by a scandal over the recent
publication of the Armenian version of his book about the PACE, which
was sponsored by the Kocharian-controlled parliament. Opposition
leaders have accused Jaskiernia of taking a `bribe.’

Seeking to placate the Council of Europe, the authorities have
already released all prominent members of the opposition arrested in
April. But they are showing no clemency for the jailed rank-and-file
oppositionists. It remains to be seen whether the PACE will care
about the likes of Edgar Arakelian, a 24-year-old man jailed who got
an 18-month jail term for hurling a plastic bottle at a police
officer on 13 April, or Lavrenti Kirakosian who, on 22 June, was sent
to prison for 18 months for allegedly keeping 59 grams of marijuana
at home.

For Grisha Virabian, meanwhile, Europe is the only place where he can
bring his tormentors to justice. His government has refused to
prosecute them, and he plans to file a lawsuit with the European
Court of Human Rights. `The Armenian government won’t punish any of
those individuals,’ he says, `because the whole system created by
them would crumble as a result.’