“Popular Walk-ins”: Protesters claim restrictions of free movement as police enforce anti-protest measuresBy Marianna Grigoryan
Published: 28 March, 2008
“What was going on yesterday was a disgrace. I cannot describe it otherwise. An absurd disgrace,” Ruzan Khachatryan, the spokeswoman for opposition leader and Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s ally Stepan Demirchyan’s People’s Party of Armenia (PPA), told ArmeniaNow on Thursday. “Without any warning people were being taken to police headquarters for questioning only because they happened to be walking in or around Northern Avenue at that moment.”
Armenia’s first ombudsperson Larisa Alaverdyan, who together with her fellow lawmakers from Heritage Party’s parliamentary faction was at the scene, says more than four dozen people were brought to the police precinct of Yerevan’s Kentron district that night.
“This data was provided to us at the Kentron Police. People who were simply on a stroll though that part of the capital had been rounded up and brought to police. All of them were released later, however that artificially and demonstratively created situation not only infringes on people’s rights, but also stirs up the situation,” Alaverdyan told ArmeniaNow.
The situation, which was “stirred up” still before the bloody events of March 1, took an interesting turn after the silent mourning march of March 21 (the first day after the state of emergency was lifted), as “popular walks” became the name to call such protest actions.
“Popular walks” was a response to the controversial legislative amendment (to the law “On holding meetings, public rallies, marches and demonstrations”) passed overwhelmingly (90 votes to 6) by Armenian lawmakers at a special meeting on March 17, which expanded opportunities for the authorities to refuse to sanction mass events, including public rallies, marches and demonstrations. At the suggestion of one Republican faction member, the amendments came into effect not within ten days as is foreseen by the routine procedure, but already the following day.
The apparent goal of the legislative “amendment” adopted on the threshold of the end of the emergency rule was to silence dissenting voices that could take to street protests and marches again.
“Solutions are not given to problems through pressures, as pressures only bring about new tensions,” says Artur Sakunts, head of the Vanadzor-based regional branch of the Armenian Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. “These actions are outside the legal, human-rights and political frameworks. As a result, people had to find new options.”
As a “new option”, every day beginning March 22, at 6 pm. groups of people go into the streets in downtown Yerevan as part of the launched “popular walks” – to take a stroll around the place, to have debates, to play chess or, how it was planned, to read a book, be it the Bible or some sci-fi literature.
“The parade of illegalities by the authorities is continuing,” says Ruzan Khachatryan, who says she will bring a complaint to court claiming that her right to walking had been restricted.
The PPA member says otherwise she will also apply to the National Assembly for a new amendment to be moved into the law in order to restrict “a person’s right to walk in the city”.
“They pass amendments that are beyond logic,” Khachatryan says. “I understand that changes have been introduced in the law, but in these same changes I haven’t seen anything outlawing walks, book- reading, for which an individual can be forcibly and without explanations put into a police car and taken to a police station.”
However, police officials say police are simply doing their job.
“We do our job,” Artyom Babayan, Chief of the Yerevan Police’s Criminal Investigations Department, explained to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “It is possible that some criminal on our wanted list is in that street, right? Is it possible to check that in those conditions? Impossible. That’s why there are corresponding divisions, places, regulated work.”
According to political analyst Aghasi Yenokyan, such “regulated work” will only fuel tensions instead of easing them.
“Such actions are aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear,” Yenokyan told ArmeniaNow.
He fears an escalation of tensions, since, he says, the daily “solutions” and repressions offered by the authorities to show that everything is under control do not produce a positive result.
“No doubt, the “popular walk” will continue, since it is impossible to change the situation with demonstrative violence,” Yenokyan believes. “And in this situation it is no longer important whether you are at fault or not, whether you break the law or not. I think that even the created absurd situation will not stop people from raising their voice of protest.”
Governing Republican Party of Armenia spokesman and MP Eduard Sharmazanov told ArmeniaNow that “perhaps there is discontent” in the country, but not “an atmosphere of fear”.
“I would advise everyone to be more correct. Only legal evaluations should be given to legal issues. If someone’s rights have been infringed upon, let them turn to court,” Sharmazanov said. “Armenia has one way – towards democracy. And democracy can be developed only in a country where there is law and order.”
Despite the authorities assertions of “establishing law and order”, on March 27, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog, urged the Armenian government “to lift new restrictions on freedom of assembly and cease detaining opposition supporters participating in peaceful protests,” saying that on March 25-27 police detained at least 80 participants of “popular walk” actions.
The Armenian government should allow peaceful demonstrations, not ban them,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new restrictions effectively punish peaceful demonstrators for the violence that took place on March 1”
HRW said that the latest restrictions on public assembly are “indefinite” and “violate Armenia’s obligation to respect peaceful assembly.” (Full text of the HRW statement is available at http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/03/27/armeni18366.htm)
ArmInfo. Today, the police repeated its yesterday's action and arrested
25 people walking in Northern Avenue.
ArmInfo's correspondent reports that policemen were approaching small
groups of people walking in the avenue, putting them into police cars
and taking away. The policemen told journalists that they were not
arresting ordinary people.
There was a nervous atmosphere in the avenue from 6:00 PM till 8:00
PM. The representative of the office of Levon Ter-Petrossyan Levon
Zurabyan, the former minister of national security David Shahnazaryan,
the wife of the former foreign minister Alexander Arzumanyan Melisa
Brown and other supporters of the opposition were seen there. But
the policemen did not approach them.
The detainees were taken to the police departments of their communities
and will mostly probably be set free just like the people arrested
By Ruzanna Stepanian and Anna Saghabalian
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his leading political allies on
Friday reaffirmed their stated readiness to engage in `dialogue' with
Armenia's leadership but said it is conditional on an end to the ongoing
government crackdown on the opposition.
The two dozen opposition parties aligned to Ter-Petrosian again urged
the authorities to fully accept the European Union's proposals for
ending Armenia's grave post-election crisis.
In two separate statements issued early this month, the EU's Slovenian
presidency said that in order to defuse the crisis, the Armenian
government should lift the state of emergency, negotiate with the
Ter-Petrosian-led opposition, release all political prisoners and allow
an `independent investigation' into the March 1 clashes in Yerevan.
The administration of outgoing President Robert Kocharian has since
lifted the state of emergency but continued to arrest opposition leaders
and activists. It has also effectively rejected the EU's calls for an
independent inquiry into the unrest.
Citing the continuing arrests and a de facto ban on opposition rallies
in Yerevan, the opposition parties said in a joint statement that
emergency rule essentially remains in force. They also claimed that the
crackdown is only `deepening public hatred and anger' towards Kocharian
and his incoming successor, Serzh Sarkisian.
`The regime can not carry on with these methods,' said Levon Zurabian, a
figure close to Ter-Petrosian. `We are going to prove that.'
`This tough course adopted by the authorities has no prospects,' he told
RFE/RL. `It is coming under both external and internal pressure. I will
fizzle out one day and pave the way for a much more influential
[opposition] movement. That is a matter of days or perhaps months.'
Zurabian said the Ter-Petrosian camp will continue to apply for
government permission to resume its rallies in Yerevan but would not say
what it will do if those continue to be rejected by the authorities. The
statement by the opposition parties also did not specify if the former
Armenian leader is ready to stage unsanctioned street protests.
Zurabian admitted that the opposition is hamstrung by the fact that more
than a hundred of its senior and active members are currently under
arrest on charges mainly stemming from the March 1 violence.
One of them, Hovannes Harutiunian, who was a Ter-Petrosian proxy on
election day, was tried and sentenced on Friday to 18 months in prison
for illegally buying and possessing bullets. A district court in Yerevan
dismissed Harutiunian's arguments that the bullets were purchased for
his hunting rifle registered with the police. His lawyer, Vartan
Zurnachian, dismissed the accusation as unfounded and politically
Another arrested opposition supporter, Seryozha Siradeghian, walked free
in court after being handed a suspended two-year jail term earlier this
week. The 73-year-old resident of a village in northern Armenia is the
elder brother of Vano Siradeghian, Ter-Petrosian's former interior
minister who fled the country in 2000 to avoid prosecution on murder
It also emerged that state prosecutors have formally charged Arshak
Banuchian, the deputy director of the Matenadaran museum of ancient
Armenian manuscripts who actively campaigned for Ter-Petrosian's victory
in the February 19 presidential election. Banuchian is accused of not
only organizing illegal rallies and `mass riots' but also handing out
vote bribes to residents of the southern Vayots Dzor region on election
By Ruben Meloyan
The United States could freeze its multimillion-dollar economic
assistance to Armenia if the authorities in Yerevan continue to crack
down on dissent, restrict civil liberties and roll back democratic
reforms, a senior U.S. diplomat reiterated on Friday.
The Armenian government's unprecedented crackdown on the opposition that
followed last month's disputed presidential election has prompted
serious concern from Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice said on March 12 that the imposition of a state of emergency in
Yerevan `made it necessary' to freeze some of the U.S. aid programs. She
appeared to refer to $235.6 million in aid which Washington has promised
allocate to Armenia under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA)
In a March 11 letter to President Robert Kocharian, John Danilovich,
chief executive of the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC),
warned that the U.S. government agency managing the scheme could
`suspend or terminate' the five-year aid package. In particular, he
sited the 20-day state of emergency and the resulting government ban on
independent news reporting.
U.S. officials subsequently welcomed the lifting of emergency rule but
said more needs to be done to improve Armenia's democratic credentials.
Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian
affairs, told RFE/RL last week that the authorities should free
individuals arrested for their participation in post-election opposition
demonstrations and engage in dialogue with opposition leader Levon
Speaking to journalists in Yerevan on Friday, the U.S. charge d'affaires
in Armenia, Joseph Pennington, stressed that the promised assistance has
not been frozen yet. `That decision has not been made,' he said. `We
think it is only fair to give the new administration time to turn the
situation around. So if we see those negative trends turn into a
positive direction, obviously that will have a positive impact on the
decisions of MCC.'
`But if we don't see a commitment on the Armenian side to get back on a
democratic trajectory, then obviously the possibility of suspension is
very real,' he added.
Pennington noted that Armenia's eligibility for MCA funding was `in
trouble' even before the dramatic post-election events in Yerevan. He
pointed to a perceived lack of democratic change, restrictions on press
freedom and the scale of government corruption in the country.
The U.S. aid package is designed to significantly reduce rural poverty
by upgrading Armenia's irrigation networks and about 1,000 kilometers of
rural roads. According to Armenian and U.S. officials, it would benefit
75 percent of the country's million-strong rural population.
Kocharian shrugged off last week the U.S. threats to freeze the aid,
saying that the Armenian government can find other sources of funding
for the rural infrastructure projects. He also scoffed at U.S. President
George W. Bush's failure so far to congratulate Prime Minister Serzh
Sarkisian on his hotly disputed victory in the February 19 presidential
Pennington would not be drawn on whether or not Bush will eventually
send a congratulatory message to Sarkisian. `I don't want to speculate
on what the White House or Washington may or may not do,' he said. `But
what I can say is that the U.S. government is looking forward to working
with the new president and getting Armenia back to a democratic