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. 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.
The full picture of what happened in Yerevan on March 1 has yet to emerge. Law enforcement actions caused deaths and injuries at different times during the day and at different locations. The shifting dynamics between police and protestors mean that each police action needs to be assessed distinctly as to whether it went outside the boundaries of legitimate policing, as defined in international standards for use of force and firearms. Yet it is clear from multiple accounts that at various times police deployed excessive use of force, beating demonstrators who were not behaving aggressively, and some of the police use of firearms appears to have been indiscriminate or disproportionate. 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.
The demonstrators had been protesting the outcome of Armenia's presidential election on February 19, in which their candidate, Levon Ter-Petrossian, had lost to Serj Sargsyan. A group of protestors claiming that Sargsyan's victory was the result of fraud had established a continuous protest immediately after the election, with daily rallies and an overnight encampment on a city center square. Initially the authorities tolerated the protestors. 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 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; 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. Confrontation flared between protestors and some police officers departing from the scene, leading to police cars being set alight and protestors attacking police who were guarding the nearby Yerevan city hall.
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. 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. Detainees we spoke with were denied the right to inform their families of their whereabouts, and were refused access to lawyers of their own choosing.
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.