Monday, March 03, 2008


Armenia is counting the cost of what is already being called “Bloody Saturday,” after several people were killed in running battles between police and opposition demonstrators in the capital Yerevan.

After a day of violence on March 1 which stunned this normally peaceful city, outgoing president Robert Kocharian declared a state of emergency in Yerevan.

The protesters were calling for the cancellation of the February 19 election in which Kocharian’s ally and prime minister Serzh Sarkisian was voted in as president, when the security forces moved in with force to break up the demonstration.

Police and Interior Ministry troops used truncheons, tear gas, and electric stun guns to disperse opposition supporters from a central Yerevan square March 1, but thousands regrouped later reports the blog World War IV. Riot police fired tracer bullets into the air and again used tear gas to disperse the crowd of 15,000. Some protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police.

Shops were looted, cars set on fire, molotov cocktails were thrown, and in addition to the fatalities known so far, 16 servicemen and 18 protesters were wounded in shootouts between the two sides. Each side blames the other.

"The situation is horrible," said one resident to EuroNews. "I could not ever imagine that here in Yerevan such things could happen. I don't know how to describe it, everyone just went crazy."

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.

Troops are now patrolling the streets of the capital to enforce a state of emergency, which will remain until March 20.

Thirty supporters of opposition leader and Presidential candidate Ter-Petrosian have been jailed in the aftermath of Armenia’s disputed presidential election. The status of Ter-Petrosian himself is in dispute.

Political analysts and human rights activists are wondering whether Robert Kocharian’s administration is striving to cleanse the narrative of the March 1 events. With the government controlling all channels of information, it is difficult to determine the extent of the brutality. Many news sources have been blacked out by the government.

“It’s hard to say if there’s a cover-up. … What’s evident is the need for a full, independent investigation,” said Rachel Denber, the deputy director of Human Right's Watch (HRW) Europe and Central Asia division.

Denber declined to comment on whether HRW deemed the government’s official death toll of eight as reliable, or whether the number of dead was probably higher. She would only describe the March 1 events as a “very chaotic and violent situation.” Denber added that Armenia, as a member of the Council of Europe, was “obligated” to abide by internationally recognized standards for the investigation of government actions.

“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.”

In written statements released March 2, HRW questioned whether the use of force by Armenian security troops on March 1 was disproportionate to the threat to public order. “Armenian police used excessive force and violence to disperse demonstrators protesting peacefully against recent election results,” said one HRW statement.

The European Union on Monday called on Armenia to lift a state of emergency and free the opposition leader from house arrest and demonstrators detained by police after deadly weekend riots.

"I urge the Armenian government to lift the state of emergency declared on March 1," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement.

"I also call on the Armenian authorities to lift any restrictions on free movement for former presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and to release any citizens detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly," she said.

Elections were held in Armenia on February 19. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was declared the winner, and the successor to political ally outgoing President Robert Kocharian. Immediately supporters of opposition leader former president Levon Ter-Petrosian erupted, saying the elections had been rigged to ensure Sarkisian would succeed Kocharian.

Close to 400 observers, including some 75 parliamentarians, monitored the elections for the OSCE/ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), and the European Parliament (EP). The International Election Observation Mission said, "...presidential election in Armenia was conducted mostly in line with the country’s international commitments, although further improvements are necessary to address remaining challenges.”

I regret not having more personal knowledge of the politics of Armenia. If you do, please send me something.

The following is from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

Eyewitnesses Tell of Violence, Shootings
Amidst a virtual media blackout, witnesses tell their own stories of street fighting in Yerevan.

Armenia is under a virtual news blackout because of the state of emergency imposed in Yerevan on March 1, which placed tight restrictions on local media.

As people struggle to form a clear picture of the violence that has shaken the Armenian capital, rumours are circulating rapidly.

Amid the rumour and half-truths, several direct witnesses have given accounts of what they saw to IWPR.

Yerevan residents have resorted to telephoning one another or coming out onto the streets to swap information. Taxi drivers, in particular, have become a good source of “alternative news”.

Internet providers have all but shut down access to two independent sources of information – the websites of Radio Liberty and A1+ television.

Much of the video footage shot during the protests was confiscated by police, but some is being released on the internet, as Armenians exchange information on sites such as Youtube and Facebook.

Rumours that the number of dead was not eight – as officials say - but 40 or even 100 have fuelled anger among opposition supporters already infuriated by official television reports that placed all the blame on the protestors.

Eyewitnesses who observed clashes at various points in the day on March have told IWPR of running battles and police violence.

When the trouble began early on March 1, as the opposition’s tent city on Freedom Square was broken up and protestors were rounded up., one young woman named Suzie managed to capture on film footage in which ten policemen attacked and kicked a man.

Later in the day, another clash took place close to the French embassy and the office of Yerevan’s mayor. A foreigner living in Yerevan, who asked not to be named, told IWPR he observed the ensuing confrontation, and alleged that men armed with rifles deliberately fired on civilians.

“I was on a balcony overlooking the epicentre of the battle last night. I was within 10 metres of the entire fight,” he said.

“There were special-forces snipers with black ski-masks mixed in with the young, scared policemen, who were not masked. While the police shot tracers into the air, these riflemen directly aimed at and shot protesters. I saw two men fall on the ground below me, one with a massive haemorrhage to his head. He was unconscious and carried off by other protesters.”

At the start of the police action against the crowd assembled near the embassy building, he said, “I saw a police captain and his lieutenants drinking in celebration as they sent the first attack of terrified, ill-trained riot police to the front.”

As the police moved in, they set fire to a barricade that protesters had erected near the embassy. “Protesters lobbed fire back onto the streets and counter-charged. The police then panicked, and some were wounded in the melee, mostly from their own [colleagues] also trying to get away from the fight. I saw several police limp back, but none were bloody,” said the eyewitness, adding, “This is when I saw masked soldiers take aim and fire directly at the protesters.”

The eyewitness said the demonstrators had only makeshift weapons - rocks and metal bars. “A few had Molotov cocktails, but most simply took tear gas canisters and whatever police used to send fire into the protesters [and threw them] back,” he said.

In the second police charge, he said, the police brought in water-cannon trucks, but used them “ineptly”, running out of water before they reached the protesters.

The security forces then retreated again. “This is when the protesters began to give chase, chasing riot police and the water-cannon trucks all the way to Proshian and the Hrazdan gorge,” said the eyewitness.

He gave his own account of the looting incidents that followed, which have been widely reported in the media. He said protestors seemed to target only the security forces and those businesses whose owners were seen as close to the current government.

“Some elements broke into supermarkets owned by oligarchs and deputies of parliament who are widely seen to be among the most corrupt officials in the country,” he said. “This is the remarkable thing that occurred – they targeted only two oligarch supermarkets, one candy store, one high-scale shoe shop and a few windows. That's it. They did not touch a single other shop on the street.”

The same applied to vehicles, he continued, claiming, “The only cars torched were military or police vehicles. Fighting went back and forth in front of me and there were five cars unfortunately parked on the street by people living in the building, but there was not a scratch on them.”

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