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Year After Armenian Postelection Violence, Rights Group Calls For Justice

Ten people were killed and scores injured in the March violence.
Ten people were killed and scores injured in the March violence.
At least eight protesters and two police officers were killed, and scores injured, as a result of the violence that broke out last year in Yerevan when police clashed with protesters demonstrating against the results of Armenia's presidential election.

Nearly a year after the March 1, 2008, violence in downtown Yerevan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a report criticizing the Armenian authorities for lack of transparency and comprehensiveness in their investigation of the incident.

Giorgi Gogia, the New York-based group's Caucasus researcher in Tbilisi, says that the authorities have taken a "one-sided" approach.

"A year after, what happened on March 1 is still unclear. However it is clear that police used excessive force [against demonstrators]," Gogia says. "Unfortunately the investigation has been only one-sided."

Gogia is the author of an HRW report titled "Democracy On Rocky Ground: Armenia's Disputed 2008 Presidential Election, Post-Election Violence, and the One-Sided Pursuit of Accountability."

'Arbitrary And Excessive' Force

The 64-page document, based on more than 80 interviews carried out over the course of three research missions to Armenia, details the clashes that took place between police and protesters after the disputed February 19, 2008, elections.

Immediately after the polls brought then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian to power, a group established a continuous, peaceful protest on Yerevan's Freedom Square.

On March 1, according to HRW research, police attacked several hundred of the protesters, without any warning, using rubber truncheons, iron bars, and electric shock batons, in a predawn raid on tents that had been set up on the square.

Later in the day, after thousands of protesters gathered near the French Embassy, HRW says police engaged in negotiations, then withdrew before again taking the offensive in a pitched battle with several dozen, mostly young, demonstrators.

"There, clearly, protesters were also prepared for this clash and they also used some kind of makeshift weapons including Molotov cocktails, stones, sticks, iron bars, and they directly clashed with the police," Gogia says.

"Clearly, there were instances where police used legitimate means of policing, but also some of the force seemed arbitrary and excessive."

By evening, with a major confrontation unfolding, a 20-day state of emergency was declared. The clashes were over by midnight.

'One-Sided' Justice

The HRW report highlights a number of failing in the investigation into the violence.

It says the Armenian authorities have investigated, prosecuted, and convicted dozens of opposition members -- sometimes in flawed and politically motivated trials -- in connection with the demonstration and violence.

It notes that authorities have failed, however, to prosecute any members of the law enforcement agencies for excessive use of force.

"We are calling of course for a thorough, transparent, comprehensive, independent investigation into the March 1 events. The government has an obligation to investigate the excessive use of force by its forces," Gogia says.

"We are also asking them to do special training for law enforcement structures on crowd-control mechanisms, on legitimate policing."

Gogia says the government also has an obligation to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of people detained in connection with March 1 events, and to prosecute those found responsible.

HRW says it spoke to people who were mistreated while in police custody -- including beatings, verbal and physical assaults, and threats that took place in the course of arrests or detentions.

The group also says many detainees were denied the right to inform their families of their whereabouts, and were refused access to lawyers of their own choosing.

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