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Armenia: A Dictator in the Making

by Emil Danielyan, TOL, 24 June 2004

A police state is being rebuilt in Armenia, and the West´s silence is worse than deafening. Read the transcript of an online discussion with Emil Danielyan on 7 July.

YEREVAN, Armenia—Handcuffed and defenseless, Grisha Virabian endured hours of merciless blows to his crotch and sides. Only after a night of agonizing pain was he reluctantly allowed to undergo surgery. As a result of his torture, one of his testicles had to be removed. But the person who may find himself in jail is Virabian, not one of his sadistic interrogators. The charge: that he put up resistance.

Virabian´s cardinal sin, though, was to lead a group of a hundred people from Artashat, a town 30 kilometers south of Yerevan, on a march to the Armenian capital on 9 April. There, they joined up with the country´s main opposition groups, which had begun a campaign of street protests aimed at toppling President Robert Kocharian, a man controversially reelected last year. Police officers visited his home on an almost daily basis until he stopped hiding and showed up for interrogation on 23 April. Virabian, 44, says he was first assaulted by Hovannes Movsisian, head of the criminal investigations division at the Artashat police, and hit the latter in the face in self-defense with a mobile phone recharging device lying on a table. This is what apparently made the officers go berserk.

Yet if one is to believe the Armenian authorities, Virabian himself is the culprit because he attacked a “state official performing his duties.’ Criminal charges, carrying up to three years´ imprisonment, have already been brought by prosecutors in Yerevan. Virabian has been cross-examined face to face with a dozen Artashat police officers, all of them testifying that he went on a rampage at their headquarters. “They avoided looking me in the eyes,’ says this soft-spoken father of two.


The case against Virabian has become a potent symbol of unprecedented repression unleashed by Kocharian in response to the opposition drive for regime change, repression that is turning Armenia into a vicious police state where human rights are worth nothing when they threaten the ruling regime´s grip on power. Hundreds of people around the country have been rounded up, detained, mistreated, and imprisoned over the past three months in blatant violation of the law. About two dozen opposition activists have faced prosecution on trumped-up criminal charges.

The crackdown demonstrates that an independent judiciary is as nonexistent in contemporary Armenia as it was in the Soviet era. It also shows that Armenia´s corrupt law enforcement bodies are growing even more brutal in their treatment of ordinary citizens. In an ominous sign for the country´s democratic future, they have been given a new KGB-style function of keeping track of and suppressing opposition activity. This is especially true of the areas outside Yerevan, where just about everyone challenging the regime is on the police watch list.

“Armenia has taken a big step backward in the past three months in terms of human rights protection,’ says Vartan Harutiunian, a prominent human rights campaigner who himself spent eight years in Soviet labor camps as a political prisoner. “We are now firmly on a path leading to dictatorship.’

The most common (and benign) form of political persecution has been “administrative’ imprisonments for up to 15 days for participants in opposition demonstrations. Hundreds are believed to have faced such punishment under the Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses for allegedly “disrupting order’ or defying police. In reality, they were simply randomly detained by plainclothes police officers after virtually every opposition rally this spring and were promptly sentenced in closed overnight trials without being granted access to lawyers. Judges hearing such cases usually act like notaries, rubber-stamping police fabrications. The purpose of the administrative arrests seems obvious: to discourage as many Armenians from attending anti-Kocharian protests as possible.

The practice, equally widespread during last year´s disputed presidential election, has been strongly and repeatedly condemned by domestic and international human rights groups. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) again called for its immediate end in a resolution on the political crisis in Armenia adopted on 28 April.

The arrests pale in comparison with other human rights abuses. As the campaign for Kocharian´s ouster gained momentum in late March scores of opposition activists in various parts of the country were rounded up for what the police described as “prophylactic conversations.’ The oppositionists said they were bullied and warned against participating in the upcoming rallies in Yerevan.

The first major show of government force came at an opposition rally in Armenia´s second-largest city of Gyumri on 28 March. Authorities there refused to sanction the protest, saying that they could not guarantee its security because the local police were too busy solving a serious crime. The rally went ahead but was nearly disrupted by several men who threw eggs at organizers. They, as it turned out, were police officers. Some opposition activists hardly knew this when they clashed with the men and were arrested on the spot by dozens of other plainclothes police. Four of the activists were eventually sentenced to between nine and 15 months in prison for “hooliganism.’

Tension rose further when the opposition, buoyed by the success of the November “rose revolution’ in neighboring Georgia, took its campaign to Yerevan. The authorities effectively disrupted transport between the capital and the rest of the country in a bid to reduce attendance at the opposition rallies.

The confrontation culminated in a march on 12 April by thousands of opposition supporters in the direction of Kocharian´s official residence in the city center. Baton-wielding riot police stopped the crowd from approaching the presidential palace and brutally dispersed it in the early hours of 13 April, using water cannons, stun grenades, and, according to some eyewitness accounts, electric-shock equipment. The security forces left no escape routes for the fleeing protesters, relentlessly beating and arresting scores of them.

This was immediately followed by the police ransacking and the closure of the offices of the three largest opposition parties. Among those arrested were more than a dozen women working for the most radical opposition party, Hanrapetutiun (Republic). Some of them later gave harrowing accounts of mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of the police chief in Yerevan´s Erebuni district, Nver Hovannisian. One young woman told a Human Rights Watch researcher, “He came in and said, ‘Ah, it was you who was at the protest.´ I said ‘No, it wasn´t me.´ He began to beat me with his fists and knees to my stomach. I fell and he kicked me on my back. He said, ‘Now all our men will come in and rape you.´ ’

The crackdown also saw the worst-ever violence against Armenian journalists. Four were severely beaten by the police while covering how police broke up the 12-13 April demonstration. According to Hayk Gevorgian of the Haykakan Zhamanak daily, the deputy chief of the national police service, General Hovannes Varian, personally confiscated his camera and then ordered subordinates to attack him. Gevorgian had already lost a camera a week before that when he and other photographers and cameramen pictured a group of burly men attempting to disrupt another opposition rally in Yerevan. Almost all of them had their cameras smashed by the thugs, who reportedly work as “bodyguards’ for some government-connected tycoons. Police officers led by Varian stood by and watched, refusing to intervene.

The authorities made an awkward attempt to dispel the widespread belief that they orchestrated the ugly scene by having a Yerevan court fine two of the thugs $180 each on 10 June. It was a travesty of justice, with about 30 well-built men packing the courtroom and refusing to let anyone in. They gave in only after a plea (not an order) from the court chairman. “We were twice humiliated, first in the street and then in the court,’ said Anna Israelian, a veteran correspondent for the Aravot daily who was attacked by the one of the defendants.


Strangely enough, international reaction to the events in Armenia has been rather muted. Only Human Rights Watch has made an explicit condemnation of the “cycle of repression’ in a detailed report on 4 May. The PACE resolution also criticized the crackdown, threatening Yerevan with political sanctions. However, the Strasbourg-based assembly´s official in charge of assessing Armenia´s compliance with the resolution, Jerzy Jaskiernia, is notorious for his leniency toward Kocharian´s regime. The Polish parliamentarian´s fact-finding trip to Yerevan on 11-14 June was marred by a scandal over the recent publication of the Armenian version of his book about the PACE, which was sponsored by the Kocharian-controlled parliament. Opposition leaders have accused Jaskiernia of taking a “bribe.’

Seeking to placate the Council of Europe, the authorities have already released all prominent members of the opposition arrested in April. But they are showing no clemency for the jailed rank-and-file oppositionists. It remains to be seen whether the PACE will care about the likes of Edgar Arakelian, a 24-year-old man jailed who got an 18-month jail term for hurling a plastic bottle at a police officer on 13 April, or Lavrenti Kirakosian who, on 22 June, was sent to prison for 18 months for allegedly keeping 59 grams of marijuana at home.

For Grisha Virabian, meanwhile, Europe is the only place where he can bring his tormentors to justice. His government has refused to prosecute them, and he plans to file a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights. “The Armenian government won´t punish any of those individuals,’ he says, “because the whole system created by them would crumble as a result.’

Emil Danielyan has been writing for TOL and its print predecessor, Transitions, since the mid-1990s.

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