Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Armenia: post-election witch-hunt

Eurasia Daily Monitor
The Jamestown Foundation

Armenia’s embattled leadership has unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition following the bloody suppression of street protests against the official results of last month’s disputed presidential election. More than a hundred supporters of the main opposition presidential candidate, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, have been arrested and are facing lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in what the ruling regime calls an attempted coup d’etat. The crackdown, aggravated by a virtual ban on independent news reporting, intensified last week despite the West’s calls for dialogue between the Armenian government and the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition.

The mass arrests, increasingly resembling a witch-hunt, stem from the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition supporters that left at least eight people dead.

[…] Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian indicated on March 7 that the coup case may be complemented by an Orwellian charge of “psychological sabotage” against the country’s population (RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 7). He said Ter-Petrosian resorted to mass hypnosis and other “psychological tricks” to attract a large following after his dramatic political comeback in September 2007.

The authorities continue to justify the use of lethal force against the protesters, stressing the fact that one security officer was killed and dozens wounded on March 1. But they have yet to clearly explain the circumstances of the deaths of at least seven protesters. The official line is that security forces fired gunshots only into the air. However, amateur video clips of the deadly violence posted on the Internet last week suggest the opposite. One clip shows several heavily armed men in special police uniforms firing what appear to be live rounds in the direction of the demonstrators. In another, more harrowing, footage, pieces of a human brain and skull can be seen strewn in a pool of blood.

[…] Western pressure may still not be strong enough, but it should make it harder for the regime to arrest Ter-Petrosian and/or extend the state of emergency for another 20 days in order to forestall opposition demonstrations before Sarkisian’s inauguration, which is scheduled for April 9. Ter-Petrosian made it clear at a March 11 news conference that he will continue to challenge the official vote results and stage more street protests. It is not clear, however, whether he will do that with virtually all of his close associates in jail or on the run or will wait for the dust to settle. In any case, Ter-Petrosian can count on the unwavering backing of tens of thousands of angry Armenians who rallied in Yerevan to back his demands for a re-run of the presidential election.

Many of them are young people who have previously shown little interest in politics and barely knew their revered leader just a few months ago. They are the ones who set up barricades and took on riot police on March 1. The government repression may have quelled their spontaneous rebellion, but it did nothing to address the underlying causes of anger that drove them to the streets in the first place.

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