YEREVAN -- The Armenian government has upheld the legality of a secret order paving the way for military involvement in the suppression of the 2008 opposition protests in Yerevan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
The written directive signed on February 23, 2008 by then-Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian was revealed by the pro-opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" late last year.
It was issued immediately after outgoing President Robert Kocharian ordered Armenia's top security officials to thwart what he called attempts by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian to "seize power by illegal means."
He referred to nonstop demonstrations staged by Ter-Petrossian's supporters following the hotly disputed February 19 presidential election.
The order placed Armenia's armed forces on high alert and ordered the Defense Ministry to form special groups of officers and give them weapons. Harutiunian also instructed the then-commander of the army's Yerevan garrison, General Yuri Khachaturov, to form a special command structure with essentially unlimited control over military units stationed in and around the capital city.
Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK) denounced the leaked document as being illegal.
The opposition alliance wrote to Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian last month demanding that Harutiunian's directive be declared unconstitutional.
Vahe Hovsepian, the lawyer who drew up the appeal, cited constitutional provisions that ban the armed forces from taking sides in political disputes.
In a written response sent to Hovsepian this week, the government said the directive did not require or amount to "use of the armed forces." It said the high alert ordered by the defense minister was a routine action taken "at the tactical level of army management."
Hovsepian told RFE/RL that he considers the explanation baseless. "The fact is that the armed forces were used during the events of March 1, 2008," he said.
Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsvuvarian defended the legality of the order to RFE/RL. He claimed army units were only told to guard "facilities of strategic importance" during the deadly unrest.
Shahsuvarian earlier confirmed that a former senior Defense Ministry official, Armen Sarkisian, was arrested in December on suspicion of leaking the confidential document to "Haykakan zhamanak." Sarkisian is expected to go on trial soon on charges of disclosing a state secret.
Ten people died in the postelection clashes between demonstrators and security forces in March 2008.