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Armenian President Calls For 'Thorough Review' Of Post-Election Violence Probe

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Serzh Sarkisian on April 20 urged Armenia's law enforcement agencies to intensify their efforts to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the post-presidential election clashes in Yerevan on March 1-2, 2008 in which 10 people died . The clashes and the events that led up to them have been the subject of massive obfuscation. The Sarkisian administration's failure to identify and hold responsible those responsible for the police intervention is the primary reason why it enjoys less legitimacy and public support that any government since 1991.

Sarkisian's defeated rival in that ballot, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, had called on March 1, the third anniversary of the violence, for either the creation of a new independent international commission to probe what really happened, or the revival of the Fact-Finding Group of Experts that was disbanded in summer 2009 due to serious disagreements between its pro-government and opposition members. Ter-Petrossian aide Levon Zurabian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 21 that Sarkisian's instructions "satisfy" that demand and may herald further concessions by the Armenian leadership.

Sarkisian's injunction was directed primarily at Armenia's Special Investigative Service (SIS), which is subordinate to the Prosecutor-General's Office and is generally tasked with more sensitive internal inquiries, often targeting the police themselves. In response to Sarkisian's orders, the SIS released a statement on April 21 pledging a "thorough review" of the factual evidence, testimony by witnesses and forensic evidence collected in its probe of the violence thus far. In line with Sarkisian's suggestion that some persons who for whatever reason refused to give evidence earlier may be prepared to do so now, the SIS appealed for witnesses to come forward, pledging to ensure their security and that their testimony will be kept confidential.

Parallel to the criminal investigation undertaken by the SIS, an ad hoc parliamentary commission headed by deputy parliament speaker Samvel Nikoyan was set up in June 2008 under pressure from the international community, in the first instance the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), to investigate the chain of events that culminated in the violence. Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK) declined to name representatives to serve on that commission, arguing that it was dominated by pro-regime lawmakers and would therefore be incapable of delivering an objective assessment.

The parliamentary commission was originally supposed to present its findings by October 25, 2008. That deadline was extended until late February, 2009, and then once again to enable the commission to incorporate the findings of a parallel Fact-Finding Group of Experts established in late fall 2008. The Group of Experts comprised five members: Ter-Petrossian's HAK and Zharangutiun (Heritage), at that time the only opposition party represented in parliament, agreed to nominate one member each on condition that the authorities invite international experts to work with them.

Within weeks, however, the opposition members threatened to quit the group, complaining that the presidential administration was insisting it convene within the parliament building although there were no legal grounds for that insistence. The group suspended its work in early May 2009, shortly after its preliminary findings were leaked to the opposition press. Those findings contradicted those of the parliamentary commission, in particular with regard to the circumstances in which two police and security service officers died during the clashes. Sarkisian finally disbanded the group of experts in June 2009 after its chairman Vahe Stepanian stepped down, admitting that he could no longer ensure cooperation between its opposition and pro-government members.

The parliament commission submitted its 138-page report to parliament in mid-September 2009. That report concluded that the police actions were "by and large" legal and constitutional, and constituted an appropriate and commensurate response to the perceived threat of a coup d'etat by Ter-Petrossian supporters protesting the official outcome of the February 19 election. The report did not clarify the circumstances under which police opened fire, or identify anyone responsible for the 10 deaths. Former police chief Hayk Harutiunian had assured the commission in late April that "there was no order to open fire," and that police "only shot into the air to frighten the protesters."

It is not clear whether any of the Fact-Finding Group's materials were incorporated into the parliament commission's report. In late April, commission chairman Nikoyan had told the daily "Aravot" that he had "virtually no contact" with the group's members and at that juncture had not received any materials from them. Nikoyan said he had invited the group's members to commission sessions, "but they didn't show up."

The HAK immediately branded the parliament commission's report as a whitewash. The PACE too criticized it as "one-sided" and "selective," noting in December 2009 an implicit contradiction between the conclusion that the use of police force was justified and its recommendations for further action. Those recommendations focused on such issues as new legislation and social justice, but glossed over the failure to identify and bring to trial those responsible for the fatal shootings, affirming only that "the investigation continues."

In January 2010, Robert Avagian, one of the two pro-government Fact--Finding Group members, told the opposition newspaper "Zhamanak" that if its findings had been incorporated into the parliament commission's report, the PACE might not have criticized it.

The inconclusive findings of the parliament commission were called into question by the publication in December 2009 in the pro-opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" of a photocopy of a directive signed on February 23, 2008 by then Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian placing the armed forces on high alert and ordering the defense minister to form special groups of officers and issue them weapons. Harutiunian also instructed the then commander of the army's Yerevan garrison, General Yuri Khachaturov, to form a special command structure with unlimited control over military units stationed in and around the Armenian capital.

Harutiunian's directive was issued immediately after a meeting of the National Security Council at which outgoing President Robert Kocharian accused Ter-Petrossian of "seeking to seize power illegally" and ordered police and security forces to take "all necessary measures to maintain law and order in the country.

It was on the basis of that directive that the opposition members of the Fact-Finding Group had claimed in May 2009 that the armed forces were illegally deployed to quash the postelection protests.

The two military officers responsible for leaking the Harutiunian's directive to the press were subsequently arrested, tried, and sentenced for divulging state secrets. But former Justice Minister David Harutiunian told "Haykakan zhamanak" that the Armenian parliament committee for legal affairs that he chairs would not investigate the revelations contained in the directive as it is not authorized to do so.

Also in April 2010, the families of the eight civilians and one of the police officers killed during the night of March 1-2 brought four separate lawsuits against the SIS, which they argued has not done enough to identify and bring to justice the persons responsible for the killings. The SIS investigators responded that they are still working on the case, and the appeals were duly rejected.

Vahagn Harutiunian (no relation to Mikael or David), the head of the SIS team investigating the postelection violence, told RFE/RL on April 21 that the investigators' findings to date will be "thoroughly reviewed" in an attempt to shed new light on what happened. It is not clear whether Harutiunian's team will also review and evaluate the conclusions of the Fact-Finding Group.

Andranik Kocharian, one of the two opposition members of the short-lived Fact-Finding Group, said on April 21 that the SIS should interrogate and take a deposition from former President Robert Kocharian (to whom he is not related).

Acquiescing to the HAK's demand for a renewed investigation into the March 2008 deaths not only serves to lessen the opposition pressure on President Sarkisian, but lends credence to the perception that the authorities are negotiating a behind-the-scenes deal with the HAK. The Yerevan municipal council has agreed to a second HAK request, granting the alliance permission to stage its next public demonstration on Freedom Square.

Having the SIS formally summon and question former President Kocharian, specifically about his contacts with Ter-Petrossian on the afternoon of March 1, 2008 in a bid to defuse the tensions, and about the circumstances in which Interior Ministry and army troops closed in on the protesting Ter-Petrossian supporters, might undercut, and perhaps even demolish, Kocharian's chances of a staging a political comeback by running against Sarkisian in the presidential election due in early 2013.

Sarkisian has already secured pledges of support by both junior members of the ruling coalition, Bargavach Hayastan (BH) and Orinats Yerkir (OY), for his 2013 presidential bid. The elevation last week of BH chairman Gagik Tsarukian, widely regarded as a close associate of Kocharian, to membership of the National Security Council may have been a tactical move by Sarkisian to limit Tsarukian's room for maneuver if Sarkisian calls a pre-term parliamentary election, as seems increasingly probable. The NSC is firmly in the hands of Sarkisian loyalist and OY chairman Artur Baghdasarian.

-- Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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