HRW: Democracy on Rocky Ground

The 64-page report by the Human Rights Watch details the clashes between police and protesters in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, on March 1, 2008, in the wake of the disputed February 2008 presidential polls. It also documents the ill-treatment of individuals detained in connection with the violence, and lack of comprehensive investigation and accountability for excessive use of force on March 1 and in its aftermath. The report is based on more than 80 interviews carried out over three research missions in Armenia in 2008 and 2009.

Although the report does seem somewhat biased, and the timing of its publication – days before the 1-year anniversary of the tragic events, just as the political tension in Armenia is building up again, I have to admit – it’s 90% true, if not more. Here are some points with my comments from the report’s summary.

“Police and protestors clashed in Armenia’s capital Yerevan on March 1, 2008, bringing to a head the country’s latest electoral dispute, over the results of a presidential poll in February”, the report runs. ” In the course of some 20 hours on March 1, in episodes at different city center locations, police variously set upon protestors without warning or resistance, negotiated, withdrew, returned to the offensive, and finally fought a pitched battle with a small group of protestors. At least ten people died-eight protestors and two police officers-and scores were injured.”

An important point made in the report’s summary is: “the fact that police were themselves under attack at times does not excuse those incidents where their own use of force was excessive. Neither does it excuse ill-treatment and torture of detained persons, nor the denial of due process rights such as access to lawyers of choice.”

“A police pre-dawn raid on the camp on March 1, justified as a search for weapons, triggered the convening of a much larger demonstration elsewhere in the city center. By evening, with a major, violent confrontation unfolding on the streets of the capital, outgoing President Robert Kocharyan declared a 20-day state of emergency during which public gatherings and strikes were banned.”

In a more or less accurate acount that follows, the report says – “In the opening episode on March 1, riot police raided, dispersed, and dismantled the protestors’ camp, beating protest participants including people who were entangled inside collapsed tents. Protestors regrouped in another part of the city center and their numbers swelled in the course of the morning”.

The next section caused my concern, because it totally overlooks the fact, that opposition leaders were in fact actively encouraging the people to ‘erect barricades’ and to stay next to Myasnikyan’s statue, despite their very own negotiations with the police forces. Hence, we read: “Participants began to erect barricades and arm themselves with makeshift weapons. Police negotiated with protest leaders for relocation of the demonstration to a different venue, and withdrew to allow the protestors to move, but the large crowd stayed put.”

“In the evening, riot police returned in force. Their actions to end the demonstration opened with overly aggressive measures-tracer bullet fire and teargas, and, according to witnesses, no verbal warnings to disperse-and they used excessive force against people who were not physically challenging them. ” – as a witness myself, I can say this is basically true, except that people were indeed “physically challenging the military forces” + verabally abusing them as much as they could, and I’d expect that to be mentioned in this report as well.

The rest of the summary and the report I presume, along with its conclustions seems quite balanced to me. Recommendations brought forward by HRW sound so realistic that I’d sign under every single one of them. Overall, a slightly biased, but realistic report.

“Protestors who had armed themselves with metal rods, sticks, paving stones, and even petrol bombs, repulsed the police attack, and the police withdrew to a road junction a few hundred meters away. While the main demonstration continued peacefully behind the barricades, a group of protestors began attacking the police, and a number of the fatalities seem to have occurred as a result. Whereas some shootings appear to have occurred when the police were under direct attack, it appears police also shot at protestors deliberately and indiscriminately in circumstances where there is no evidence that lethal force was justified.”

“In the aftermath of the violence there were more than 100 arrests. Human Rights Watch spoke to people who had been beaten in the course of being arrested, and assaulted, verbally abused, and threatened while in police custody.”

“The Armenian authorities’ response to the March 1 events has been one-sided. While they have investigated, prosecuted, and convicted dozens of opposition members, sometimes in flawed and politically motivated trials, for organizing the demonstration and participating in violent disorder, they have not prosecuted a single representative of the authorities for excessive use of force. The Office of the Public Prosecutor has also dismissed all allegations of ill-treatment and torture in detention as unfounded.”

“Electoral politics in Armenia since independence has remained stuck in a cycle of uneven contests, fraud, and disputes that more often than not spill onto the streets. There is low public confidence in the way elections are run, and widespread cynicism about their outcome. The functioning of Armenia’s multiparty system and genuine political competition are also hampered by the persistent inability of the array of political parties to stabilize and consolidate. To the extent that it exists, real political competition is volatile with a permanent risk of violence, and mutual respect between electoral competitors-especially between victors and losers-is lacking.”

“Specifically in respect of the deaths and injuries occurring on March 1, the Armenian Office of the Public Prosecutor should increase its efforts to conduct an independent, impartial investigation to establish whether law enforcement officials acted within limits set in national and international law for crowd control and use of force. This investigation should also cover the allegations of ill-treatment of people detained in connection with their participation in the March 1 events, assessing whether the array of international and European standards against torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention, to which Armenia is party, were breached.”

“More broadly, there is a need to address the deficiencies and manipulations in Armenia’s electoral processes that contribute to distrust in their fairness and doubts about their outcomes. National authorities, and international partners concerned about Armenia’s democratic transition, need to address both the causes and the symptoms of the pervasive public skepticism that genuine democracy can be made to work in Armenia.”

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