Brussels, Yerevan, 24 February 2009. Almost a year ago, a political crisis broke out in Armenia, when police used violence and excessive force to disperse opposition rallies protesting the results of the February 2008 presidential elections. This crisis, which was the culmination of an ongoing campaign to marginalize the political opposition, represented a serious setback to democratic transition and human rights protection in the country.
On the occasion of the approaching anniversary, the Helsinki Association of Armenia and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) call on the international community to continue to insist that the events in Armenia of 1 March 2008, as well as related developments, are fully and properly investigated and that those responsible for the excessive use of force and other abuses committed in connection with these events are held accountable.
In the morning of 1 March 2008, Armenian police forces cracked down on an opposition tent camp in Liberty Square in Yerevan, forcefully dismantling tents and beating participants. Later the same day, police violently dispersed an opposition rally held in another part of the capital, as a result of which clashes between police and protestors ensued, and ten people (eight demonstrators and two police officers) died and hundreds were injured. There are clear indications that the use of force by police was disproportionate in both cases and targeted also individuals who were peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly.
In connection with, and in the aftermath of the events of 1 March 2008, Armenian police carried out mass arrests of opposition activists and supporters, which frequently involved due process violations. For example, those arrested were detained without charge for longer periods of time than the 72 hours permitted by law, were not informed about their rights, and were denied access to legal counsel and medical assistance although they were in urgent need of it. Moreover, many were subjected to ill-treatment and torture during arrest and while in detention, including by being held in incommunicado detention for several days.
In the months following the 1 March 2008 events, there have been numerous court cases against opposition activists and supporters, who have been charged with offenses such as participating in illegal demonstrations, using force or resisting police. These trials have been by characterized by both procedural and substantive irregularities, and there are serious concerns that many defendants have been convicted on merely politically motivated grounds, and in the absence of any evidence to show that they would have committed the offenses with which they were charged. In several cases, courts have also neglected allegations by defendants claiming that they have been forced to confess under duress. As a result of the trials, dozens of people have been sentenced to imprisonment, and additional cases are still pending.
Mainly in response to demands from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Armenian authorities eventually established an expert group to undertake an inquiry into the post-election events in late 2008. However, the work of this group has yet to produce results, and as of now, no one has been held accountable for the excessive use of force or other abuses committed in the context of the events. In view of this, the Helsinki Association of Armenia and IPHR call on the international community to insist that the Armenian authorities:
- Ensure that the expert group tasked with investigating the 1 March 2008 events are granted all necessary means and opportunities to carry out its work in an impartial, thorough and effective manner, including by cooperating fully with it, and refraining from any unwarranted interference in its inquiry;
- Ensure that all allegations of disproportionate use of force by police, as well as ill-treatment and torture against opposition activists and supporters in connection with the 1 March 2008 events, and subsequent developments, are investigated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice in accordance with relevant legislation;
- Release all persons who remain in detention, or who have been imprisoned, on politically motivated charges in the aftermath of the 1 March 2008 events.
Detailed information about human rights violations perpetrated in the context of the events of 1 March 2008 can be found in the Helsinki Association of Armenia’s 2008 Annual Report on human rights in the Republic of Armenia. The report is available here.
An updated list of imprisoned conscientious objectors (as of February 2009) is available here.