Ter-Petrosian Rally Marred By Violence

TER-PETROSIAN RALLY MARRED BY VIOLENCE
By Emil Danielyan

Radio Liberty, Czech Republic
Feb 6 2008

A group of government loyalists hurled stones at and scuffled with
supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian on Wednesday in an attempt to
disrupt the former president’s rally in Artashat, an Armenian town
notorious for election-related violence against opposition activists.

The incident, which heightened tension in the run-up to Armenia’s
presidential election, was condemned by Ter-Petrosian as a government
"provocation" aimed at derailing his election campaign. Ter-Petrosian
and his allies specifically laid the blame on Hovik Abrahamian, Prime
Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s influential deputy and campaign manager
who holds sway in Artashat and surrounding villages. Law-enforcement
authorities, however, denied this and came up with a totally different
version of events.

The normally reserved ex-president struggled to keep his cool as a
dozen thugs tried to pick a fight with his activists after the latter
led a female heckler away from a crowd of more than 1,000 people
attending the rally. The youths went on to pelt rally organizers with
pieces of ice and stones, one of them landing near Ter-Petrosian.

Uniformed police officers, present at Ter-Petrosian’s gatherings in
neighboring villages, were not on hand to stop the violence.

"Here is Serzh Sarkisian, here is Robert Kocharian, here is Hovik
Abrahamian," Ter-Petrosian said as the ugly scene unfolded. "They are
hooligans, thieves, gangsters who have plundered our country and want
to infringe on the will of our people by means of such hooligans."

"The masters of these hooligans, thieves, gangsters, and rats will
flee Armenia on February 19," he added.

The incident was still not over as the thugs attacked and beat the
deputy chief of Ter-Petrosian’s security service who guarded the
opposition candidate’s limousine parked nearby. "They were throwing
stones at the people from here," Lieutenant-Colonel Sarkis Hovannisian
told RFE/RL, pressing a handkerchief against his bruised cheek. "As
soon as I tried to stop them they attacked me. There were seven or
eight of them."

Hovannisian, accompanied by Ter-Petrosian and other opposition leaders,
visited the local police headquarters and gave testimony about the
assault after the troubled rally. He was taken to hospital later in
the day.

As the situation escalated amid "Levon! Levon!" chants from the crowd,
Alik Sargsian, the governor of the southern Ararat region, of which
Artashat is the capital, emerged from his office overlooking the venue
of the rally. "Mr. Governor, where are your police? Mr. Governor,
you are not a governor, you are a hooligan," Ter-Petrosian shouted,
demanding that Sargsian "rein in" the thugs and address the crowd.

Sargsian, who is a former police officer, insisted that the violence
was not provoked by the local authorities. "The entire region knows
that the governor is not a hooligan, and the political force that will
throw mud at me will have a serious problem and will suffer losses,
moral losses," he said. "I have not seen any scuffles here."

"You should have made sure that uniformed police had stood around the
people here and protected all of us," Ter-Petrosian retorted angrily.

"You failed to do that."

"I will bear responsibility for any incident and am going to watch
things from here. I know everyone here by face," responded the
governor.

The Armenian police claimed later in the day Ter-Petrosian himself
provoked the violence by making offensive remarks about "some
officials." "Three participants of the rally demanded an end to
unethical and offensive statements, in response to which four or
five young men supporting the organizers of the event jostled, hit
and toppled them to the ground, causing them physical injuries,"
the police said in a statement. "Supporters of the victims resorted
to retaliatory actions."

The statement also claimed that the Artashat police stepped in
and "quickly took the situation under control." "The identity of
individuals involved in the incident has been ascertained and they
have been detained," it added without elaborating.

Artashat and wine-growing villages around it are widely seen as the
de facto fiefdom of Abrahamian and his extended family, who own many
local businesses as well as large swathes of agricultural land. The
town located about 30 kilometers south of Yerevan has already been
the scene of pre-election violent incidents in the past. The Armenian
opposition blamed those incidents, including the stabbing in 2003
of the campaign manager of an opposition presidential candidate, on
Abrahamian. The influential minister denied any involvement, however.

Abrahamian was on Wednesday one of the main targets of Ter-Petrosian’s
harsh verbal attacks on Armenia’s leadership, with the ex-president
repeatedly using the deputy prime minister’s derogatory nickname,
Muk (Mouse), in his speeches in Artashat and other regional towns
and villages.

"That provocation was a sign of the regime’s wretchedness, misery
and defeat," Ter-Petrosian told more than 200 people in Pokr Vedi,
a village which he visited after Artashat. "Only a weak, wretched
and miserable person can resort to such steps,"

"If the authorities were sure that they will win [the February 19
election,] they would not have resorted to such steps," said one of
his top allies, Aram Sarkisian. "They already sense their imminent
defeat. We will win before February 19."

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