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Armenia: Eyewitness Recounts Crackdown In Yerevan

Yerevan on March 2 (AFP) Robert Chakhoyan, a 23-year-old university student, endured hours of beating in Armenian police custody but he does not seem to bear a grudge against his tormentors. In fact, he is unusually composed when describing scenes of ill-treatment and pools of blood at a police station in Yerevan where he and scores of other supporters of opposition leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian were taken on March 1.

"Police officers are also human beings," he explains philosophically. "Let them come to their senses and think about who they are supporting. They must not carry out every government order."

Chakhoyan and his wife Naira were among more than 2,000 Ter-Petrossian supporters camped out in Yerevan's Liberty Square since February 20, the day after the disputed presidential election in which Ter-Petrossian claimed to have polled 65 percent of the vote. Hundreds and possibly thousands of riot police, Interior Ministry troops, and other security units surrounded the tent camp at around 6:30 a.m. local time on March 1. The square outside the city's massive Opera House was cleared within 10-15 minutes. Overwhelmed by the onslaught, the protesters chaotically fled the scene, only to be ambushed and attacked by more security forces deployed in adjacent streets. Eyewitnesses say the protesters were chased hundreds of meters away from the square, suggesting that the purpose of the security operation was not only to disperse participants of the 11-day vigil but to beat, intimidate, and arrest as many of them as possible.

The violence in and outside Liberty Square essentially set the stage for a much bloodier drama that unfolded at another location in the city center, a major street intersection outside the Yerevan town hall and the French and Russian embassies, just hours later. Hundreds of angry people began gathering there later in the morning. Riot police tried to disperse them as well, but met with fierce resistance and left the scene in the afternoon as the hardcore Ter-Petrossian supporters were joined by thousands of other Armenians furious with the police actions.

Witness accounts of police brutality might explain the ferocity with which they fought back a late-night police onslaught from one of the streets leading to the mayor's office. Braving automatic gunfire that left at least seven of their comrades dead, they confronted security forces with sticks, stones, and Molotov cocktails and sent the latter fleeing the street in disarray. It took military intervention and the declaration by outgoing President Robert Kocharian of a three-week state of emergency to force Ter-Petrossian to end the deadliest street protest in Armenia's history.

"In essence, the people rose up spontaneously and the authorities didn't expect that,” says Samson Ghazarian, one of a very few prominent Ter-Petrossian allies still not arrested over two weeks after the clashes. "I would say that most of those driven out of the Opera square didn't go home but gathered near the French Embassy."

The official line, reaffirmed by Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian last week, is that the law-enforcement officers never intended to break up Ter-Petrossian's unsanctioned sit-in in Liberty Square but simply wanted to confiscate firearms and ammunition allegedly concealed there. The police, Sarkisian said, used force only after the protesters ignored warnings not to resist the search.

Like many other tent campers, Chakhoyan claims to have not heard any warnings. "All I heard was, 'Guys, attack them,'" he told RFE/RL. "They started hitting us, we hit back and then tried to retreat. But they were already surrounding us." "No arrests were made in the square. People were arrested outside the square," he added.

Chakhoyan said he somehow managed to sneak out of the square with his wife, catch a taxi and drive her to a friend's apartment before spotting and joining a large group of fleeing oppositionists near the Yerevan State Circus, about two kilometers away from Liberty Square. Moments later they were surrounded by about a dozen police vehicles.

"Ten to 15 of us managed to escape to a nearby courtyard," he says. "We entered an apartment building, walked upstairs and asked residents to give us refuge. Half of us were let in, while the others, myself included, walked up to the roof. We got out of there at around 8 a.m., thinking that the police were gone. I saw two injured people downstairs. One of them had a broken arm and foot, the other serious wounds on his head. A resident of the building brought a bandage and cotton wool so I could provide first medical aid. We then put one of the wounded in a yellow car that took him to hospital. As I bandaged the other man's head, police came and arrested all of us," he added.

The oppositionists were taken to the headquarters of the police department of Yerevan's central Kentron district. "All of us were beaten up in both the police car and the police station," Chakhoyan recalled calmly. "They hit me in the legs, the head, the sides and other parts of my body. I asked them not to hit me in the stomach because it bleeds. I also asked them not to touch my head because my eyes had been operated on. But they deliberately kept hitting the same parts of my body."

According to Chakhoyan, Kentron policemen were anxious not to leave trace of violence on his and other detainees' bodies, placing books on their backs, stomachs and sides before hitting them with truncheons. The "insulation," he discovered, prevents bruises but does not reduce pain. "As they beat us, they yelled, 'You Levon supporters, who do you think you are to hold illegal rallies and defy us? Don't you know that Serzh won [the election?]'" he said.

Chakhoyan becomes more emotional when describing the experiences of other opposition supporters brought to the Kentron police long before the outbreak of the deadly clashes that evening. “At around 10 o'clock in the morning, I saw a bleeding young man brought over to the police station," he says. "He lay on the floor and they dragged him by his feet to the registration desk. The guy was convulsing in shock. No police officer would approach him. I said, 'Let me help him, I can do that, I've worked for the rescue squad of the Armenian Red Cross.' But they refused, saying, 'You bastard, stay where you are and don't move, we know what to do.' But I said, 'If this guy dies, you will have to answer for that. So let me help him before it's too late.'

The officers relented. "I put him in an anti-shock position, pulled his tongue back and gave him water," Chakhoyan said, adding that an ambulance arrived shortly afterward to take away the young man and three other beaten detainees.

"There was also a badly beaten teenage boy," continued Chakhoyan. "He was 14 at most. I saw him sitting in a corner. Blood was gushing from his eyes and forehead. If you entered the Kentron police headquarters at that moment, you would have seen blood all over its white tiled floor and even on the walls. The floor turned red."

After nearly two hours of interrogation, Chakhoyan was transported to the police department of the southern Shengavit district. He was kept there without charges and released only three days later. "Nobody beat me at the Shengavit police station," he says gratefully. "They treated me in a much more respectful way. They fed me and gave me cigarettes."

Meanwhile, Naira Chakhoyan too was apprehended as she looked for her husband on March 2. "I walked past a police van parked at a bus stop near the railway station," she said. "There were middle-aged policemen inside it, and I saw one of them pointing at me and saying, 'This tramp was there too, grab her as well.'"

Younger officers quickly obliged and took her the Kentron police station, which Naira says was packed with beaten men. "I stood by the wall and every passing policeman would hit me and swear at me," she said. Some officers, she said, also chanted Prime Minister Sarkisian's election campaign motto, "Forward, Armenia!" as they did so. Naira was kept there until midnight. "They didn't give any explanations," she says. "Instead, they were mocking us, saying, 'Hey, didn't Levon promise to take care of you? Why isn't he doing that? Why did you rally for him?'"

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