Friday, 22 February 2008

Armenia: Violence at Polling Stations Mars Elections

Assailants Target Opposition Activists, Observers and Journalists

A statement by Human Rights Watch

The Armenian government should investigate alleged assaults on election observers and journalists that marred the presidential election on February 19, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. According to victim testimonies taken by Human Rights Watch, assailants beat and threatened opposition party activists, domestic observers, and journalists who attempted to document election fraud at polling stations during the presidential vote. "These election-day attacks targeted the very people trying to ensure the integrity of Armenia's vote," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Armenian government should carry out independent and speedy investigations to ensure justice is served and to send the message that intimidation won't be tolerated."

On February 20, the Central Election Commission declared Prime Minister Serzh Sargsian the winner of the elections with 52.8 percent of the vote. Sargsian had the backing of current president Robert Kocharian. Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrosian was the main opposition challenger and won 21.5 percent, according to official tallies.

In nine cases documented by Human Rights Watch, assailants intimidated, threatened, and even violently attacked opposition party activists, domestic observers and journalists at eight polling stations in and around the capital, Yerevan. Victims variously described their assailants as "big guys," "athletic," "tough," and apparently supporters of Sargsian. Most victims had been attempting to expose what they believed to be violations of electoral rules, such as incorrect voters' lists, intimidation of voters, violations of the right to a secret ballot, and ballot-box stuffing. None of the victims was able or willing to return to the polling station to continue observing the voting.

In several incidents, the assaults took place in the presence of police and polling station officials who did not intervene, and in one case a police officer appeared to assist the assailants. Some victims reported the attacks to police, who are investigating.

Human Rights Watch called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to look into election-related violence and ensure that its final report on the vote records these incidents.

In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, assailants grabbed a Ter-Petrosian proxy (a candidate's authorized representative) at a polling station in Yerevan, forced her into a car and drove her to a remote area. There, they beat her in the head and face, threatened to rape her and attack her family, and abandoned her. She eventually made her way to a police station where she filed a complaint. She is still suffering from headaches and other medical repercussions of the attack.

At least three journalists were attacked. Lusine Barsegian of the newspaper Haikakan Zhamankak was beaten, and had her camera and voice recorder stolen, when she attempted to document what she believed to be intimidation of voters at a polling station in Yerevan's Erebuni district. A cameraman from the independent A1+ television station was beaten and had his camera taken at the same polling station. Two domestic election observers, Armen Matirosian, a member of parliament from the opposition Heritage party, and Zarui Postandjian, an observer from a nongovernmental organization, were also attacked at this polling station after they tried to raise alleged election violations with polling station officials.

The OSCE election monitors stated that the elections were held "mostly in line" with international commitments.

Tens of thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters took to the streets in downtown Yerevan on February 20 and 21 to protest the outcome of the elections and what they believe to be widespread electoral fraud.

"The Armenian authorities should ensure that no harm is done to peaceful demonstrators," said Cartner. "Armenia claims to be a democratic country, and that means allowing people to exercise their right to freedom of assembly."

Armenia has a history of flawed elections and harassment of opposition parties. In March 2003, Human Rights Watch documented widespread ballot stuffing and intimidation during Armenia's presidential election runoff. Human Rights Watch documented mass arrests of opposition supporters, violent dispersals of demonstrations, and raids on opposition party headquarters in April 2004. The protests derived from the government's failure to address the many violations of electoral rules documented in the 2003 presidential election. Details of Assaults

*see also Reporters Without Borders statement: Journalists physically attacked during presidential election in Armenia

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