HRW: Armenia: Police Beat Peaceful Protesters in Yerevan

For Immediate Release
eni18189.htm

Armenia: Police Beat Peaceful Protesters in Yerevan

State of Emergency Restricts Civil Liberties and Free Press

(New York, March 2, 2008) – Armenian police on March 1 used excessive
force and violence to disperse demonstrators protesting peacefully
against recent election results, Human Rights Watch said today.
Following the crackdown on demonstrators, President Robert Kocharian
decreed a state of emergency in Yerevan, the capital, until March 20,
2008. There was a heavy police presence overnight in central Yerevan.

According to Arminfo news agency, the police have surrounded and sealed
off the opposition news agency A1+, preventing its employees from
entering or leaving the building.

"The Armenian government should refrain from using violence and make
clear that it won’t tolerate excessive use of force by police," said
Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"A political crisis doesn’t give the government carte blanche in how it
responds to demonstrators."

Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that at 6.30 a.m. on March 1,
Armenian special police forces violently dispersed a rally protesting
against alleged electoral fraud that had entered its 11th day on
Yerevan’s Freedom Square, beating demonstrators with truncheons and iron
bars. Some were fleeing when police attacked them. Dozens are reported
to have sustained severe injuries and more than 100 protestors were
arrested. Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosian, who was the
main opposition challenger in last month’s presidential poll, remains
under effective house arrest as police cordoned off his home. Also on
March 1, at least six opposition leaders were detained for organizing
illegal demonstrations.

Kocharian’s press office reported that under the state of emergency
public gatherings and strikes will be banned and freedom of movement as
well as non-government public broadcasts will be severely curtailed.
Internet and satellite reception has been cut in Yerevan.

Later in the morning, protesters gathered in front of the French Embassy
in downtown Yerevan. Their numbers grew substantially during the day, as
did the police presence. A demonstrator told Human Rights Watch that
police were equipped with rubber truncheons, electric-shock devices, and
water cannons. The rally was still continuing in front of the embassy
when the state of emergency was announced after police were reported by
news organizations to have fired in the air to disperse the
demonstrators.

Opposition demonstrations followed the February 19 presidential
election, after the Central Election Commission declared Prime Minister,
Serzh Sargsian the winner with 53 percent of the vote. According to
official tallies, opposition challenger Ter-Petrosian won 21.5 percent
of the vote. Tens of thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters took to the
streets in downtown Yerevan on February 20 to protest the declared
election results and what they believed to have been electoral fraud
( ni18128.htm). The protests
continued peacefully on Freedom Square for the next 10 days, with some
demonstrators camping out on the square in tents.

The mayor of Yerevan previously called on the opposition to end the
rally on Freedom Square, as the demonstrators had no permit. The Yerevan
mayor’s office issued a statement on February 25 saying the protests
were unauthorized and urging demonstrators to call a halt to them. Two
days later the Armenian police issued a statement urging an end to the
demonstrations.

At about 6:30 a.m. on March 1, a few hundred opposition supporters were
in their tents when police arrived and started to disperse them.
Information about approaching interior troops began to reach
demonstrators shortly after 6:00 a.m. A 30-year-old eyewitness, who
requested anonymity for fear of retribution, told Human Rights Watch
that several rows of Special Forces in riot armor, with helmets, plastic
shields and rubber truncheons, started approaching from the left and
right sides of Freedom Square. The witness said that police, without
prior warning, sprayed water and descended on the demonstrators, using
rubber truncheons and electric prods.

"People started running towards Northern Avenue, but were chased by the
police," the witness told Human Rights Watch.

The witness was among those who fled, running together with his father
and younger brother, but police caught him from behind and beat him on
his back and head with a rubber truncheon.

"I momentarily lost consciousness after a blow on the head, and fell,"
he told Human Rights Watch. "When I came to my senses, my brother was
carrying me away from the square. My head was bleeding and my hat was
all covered in blood."

The witness required seven stitches on the right side of his forehead.
He sustained bruises to his right hand, back and legs. Fearing arrest he
refrained from going to a hospital and sought medical assistance from a
private doctor. His father and brother also sustained cuts and bruises
on their backs and heads, but did not require urgent medical assistance.

An Armenian human rights advocate told Human Rights Watch of several
similar descriptions of the police action given to her by other
witnesses.

The police operation lasted for about 15 to 20 minutes, but as news
about it spread, more people started heading towards the square. At
least two eyewitnesses described separately to Human Rights Watch how
police attacked, beat, and detained groups of 20 to 30 people who
attempted to gather near the square.

A member of parliament from the opposition Heritage Party, Zaruhi
Postanjian, told Human Rights Watch that she arrived at the Yerevan
Central Police Station around 9:00 a.m. to see police cars bringing
detainees to the station, transferring them to other vehicles, and
taking them to different locations. She stayed there for an hour and
counted at least 100 detainees. According to Postanjian, two ambulances
were also parked in front of the station and in one of them she saw a
young man who appeared unconscious and had blood stains on his face and
body. She also described a child she believed to be between 10 and 12
years old, bearing clear marks from beatings. Human Rights Watch could
not confirm the nature or cause of their injuries.

According to Avetik Ishkhanian of Armenia’s Helsinki Committee, police
arrested several opposition leaders, including Aram Manukian, Alexander
Arzumanian, Hrant Bagratian, Vahagn Haiotsian, and Vahagn Khachatrian,
charging them with the criminal offence of organizing an unsanctioned
public rally. According to the opposition news website Lragir, Aram
Manukian and Hrant Bagratian were released later during the day.

Postanjian told Human Rights Watch that in one case a journalist, Gagig
Shanshan, was arrested and held in Zeitun district police station in
Yerevan, but several hours after his arrest his lawyer still had no
access to him.

"Even in a state of emergency, those in detention and facing criminal
charges are entitled to due process rights, and should have access to a
lawyer," said Cartner.

Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
and Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which
Armenia is a party, set out the safeguards which should accompany those
deprived of their liberty, and access to a lawyer is one of those
safeguards.

Government information sources showed police footage of arms stockpiles
that allegedly were discovered at Freedom Square after the demonstration
was dispersed, including truncheons, guns, grenades, and gas capsules.
The report was vehemently denied by the opposition.

"The Armenian government prides itself on having a democratic image,"
said Cartner. "Beating peaceful demonstrators is inconsistent with that
image and violates its obligations under human rights law."

To read Human Rights Watch’s news release on election-related violence
in Armenia, please visit:

eni18128.htm

For more information, please contact:

In Tblisi, Giorgi Gogia (Georgian, Russian, English): +995-77-42-12-35
(mobile);

In New York, Rachel Denber (English, Russian, French): +1-212-216-1266;
or +1-917-916-1266 (mobile)

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/03/02/arm
http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/02/21/arme
http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/02/21/arm

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