YEREVAN (RFE/RL and Armenpress) — A court in Yerevan on Tuesday allowed an Armenian law-enforcement agency to keep in pretrial detention four opposition politicians who were among the organizers of an anti-government demonstration broken up by riot police.
The protest was staged late on Friday in support of opposition gunmen that had seized a police compound in Yerevan’s Erebuni district to demand President Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation. It took place several hundred meters from the compound besieged by security forces.
Riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd after the organizers ignored their warnings to march back to the city center. They also detained scores of people.
Three of them — Armen Martirosian, Hovsep Khurshudian and Davit Sanasarian — are senior members of Zharangutyun (Heritage), a major opposition headed by Raffi Hovannisian. The fourth oppositionist, Andrias Ghukasian, is a former presidential candidate.
Armenia’s Investigative Committee charged the four men with organizing “mass disturbances” before asking a district court in Yerevan to allow investigators to keep them under arrest for two months. The court granted the requests after lengthy hearings that began on Monday evening and ended early on Tuesday.
The oppositionists’ lawyers condemned the court rulings as baseless and politically motivated. Martirosian’s lawyer, Givi Hovannisian, said the rulings are based on testimony given by police officers.
Hovannisian claimed that the testimony ran counter to video of the protest shown during the hearings. “The video proved that there were no calls [for violence] and that the rally was peaceful,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
At least 60 people, most of them protesters, were seriously injured during the violence that unfolded in Yerevan’s Sari Tagh neighborhood adjacent to Erebuni. The Armenian opposition and human rights groups have accused the police of using excessive force.
“While police could legitimately seek to prevent protesters from getting too close to the police station, they were still bound to uphold human rights and respect standards on the use of force,” the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday.
“Security forces should not fire stun grenades directly into crowds,” it said. “Although the grenades are technically non-lethal, their fragmentation can foreseeably cause serious injuries in an indiscriminate manner, exposing non-violent protesters and on-lookers to grave harm.”
Arayik Khandoyan, one of the gunmen who ambushed and captured the Police precinct in Yerevan, has been charged. Khandoyan’s attorney Arayik Papikyan said the charges are filed according to Article 218, paragraph 3, point 1 of the Criminal Code (Hostage taking) and Article 235, paragraph 3 (illegal acquisition, possession, transportation and use of firearms and ammunition).
Khandoyan is currently in custody in the Vagharshapat detention facility.
The gunmen’s case has been transferred from the National Security Service to the Special Investigative Service. Regarding his other two defendants – Ashot Petrosyan and Hovhannes Harutyunyan, who are currently in the hospital of the Correctional Department, attorney Arayik Papikyan said, “They are well, they are gradually recovering. Conditions are comparably normal after our complaints.”
Armenian Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan on August 2 met detainees Pavel Manukyan and his son Aram. Arman Tatoyan hold separate private meetings with them, examined their conditions, the provision of rights, as well as the organization of the medical assistance.
Surrender on Sunday
The opposition gunmen holed up in a police station in Yerevan laid down their arms late on Sunday, ending a two-week standoff with the Armenian authorities, which has left two police officers dead.
“With their consistent and coordinated actions, special units of Armenian law-enforcement bodies have forced members of the armed group to surrender to the authorities,” Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said in a statement.
The statement said that 20 gunmen were arrested, classifying them as “terrorists.”
The NSS announced the “complete liberation” of the police compound located in the city’s southern Erebuni district more than an hour after the leader of the gunmen, Varuzhan Avetisian, said they have decided to give up themselves.
Speaking to the 1in.am news service by phone, Avetisian said continued armed resistance would be meaningless as security forces have been methodically shooting and wounding members of his group linked to a radical opposition movement, Founding Parliament.
“We have shrunk substantially, there are approximately 20 of us remaining [barricaded inside the compound,]” Avetisian said.
In these circumstances, he went on, the armed oppositionists chose to avoid further bloodshed and become “prisoners of war” instead.
The group reportedly had 30 or so members when it stormed and seized the Erebuni compound on July 17. They killed one police officer and wounded several others during the attack.
The authorities repeatedly rejected the gunmen’s demanding, insisting on their unconditional surrender. They gave the gunmen until Saturday evening to surrender or face a large-scale security operation. Another policeman was shot dead shortly after the expiry of the ultimatum.
Avetisian sought to put a brave face on the surrender, saying that he and his comrades have succeeded in dramatically increasing anti-government sentiment in Armenia.
“We consider our mission to have been accomplished,” he told 1in.am. “We have caused the people to rise up.”
The oppositionist, who was primarily known as Founding Parliament’s chief spokesman before the attack, referred to virtually daily demonstrations that have been held in Yerevan for the past two weeks in support of his armed group. He said at the same time that the gunmen have failed to topple the ruling regime also because “the people were a bit slow to get going.”
The protests organized by senior Founding Parliament members and other opposition figures drew up to several thousand people. They seemed to have lost momentum after the vast majority of the protest leaders were arrested by Saturday.
The few protest leaders remaining at large said on Sunday morning that they are suspending the campaign because of the arrests. Nevertheless, about a thousand people sympathetic to the gunmen again rallied in Yerevan’s Liberty Square and then marched through the city center in the evening.
A fringe nationalist group favoring a hard line on the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, Founding Parliament has for years attempted to force Sargsyan into resignation with peaceful demonstrations. It held a series of such protests in December together with several other small opposition groups. Their campaign fizzled out due to poor attendance at those rallies.
Early this year, Sefilian tried unsuccessfully to team up with more moderate opposition parties represented in Armenia’s parliament for another push for regime change.
On June 20, Sefilian was arrested for allegedly acquiring large quantities of weapons and forming an armed group to seize government buildings in Yerevan. The Lebanese-born oppositionist and his associates denied the charges as politically motivated.
Founding Parliament repeatedly demanded its leader’s release in the following weeks. It claimed that Sefilian is prosecuted because he planned to thwart Armenian territorial concessions which President Sarkisian allegedly plans to make to Azerbaijan.
Following the shock attack on the Erebuni police compound, Sargsyan reportedly expressed readiness to meet with Sefilian and discuss his demands if the gunmen agree to surrender. Sefilian insisted, however, that he would negotiate with the president only after being allowed to meet his armed supporters holed up in the compound. He said Founding Parliament is prepared to reach compromise agreements with Sargsyan.