“For the past eight years, Armenia’s national elections did not meet international standards,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “The government had its credibility riding on this election, but has failed the test.”
As of this writing, in the final round of voting, held March 5, President Robert Kocharian was leading over Stepan Demirchian.
Preparations for ballot stuffing appeared to begin on the eve of the elections. According to Aravot and Haykakan Zhamanak, two mainstream newspapers, pre-stamped ballot papers, marked in favor of Kocharian, were in circulation prior to the vote. Demirchian’s campaigners obtained such ballots and showed them to numerous international observers.
Human Rights Watch received eyewitness testimony about ballot stuffing by election officials or by groups of young men, who entered polling stations, bringing sheaves of ballot papers with them. Some opposition officials were assaulted:
- In the north Yerevan suburb of Avan, voters reported to Human Rights Watch seeing young men beating an opposition proxy, after she tried to prevent ballot stuffing at polling station 0007/1. In another Avan polling station (0004/1), opposition official Alexander Pirumov told Human Rights Watch that the chairman of the polling station assaulted him—with the help of police—when he tried to prevent two young men from stuffing wads of ballot papers into the box.
- Human Rights Watch viewed video footage of a shaken opposition proxy in Echmiadzin (a town fifteen kilometers from Yerevan), showing a sheaf of ballot papers pre-marked in favor of Kocharian that she had managed to prevent from being stuffed into ballot boxes. Allegedly, the chairwoman of her polling station pulled her by the hair and a group of young men kicked her when she tried to prevent the latter from stuffing the ballots into the box. Many other ballots, though, were stuffed into the box.
Election commissions at many polling stations ejected opposition officials and proxies who attempted to resist ballot stuffing and other fraud, or summoned the police to deal with them:
- At 1:00 p.m., local human rights defenders and journalists oversaw the reinstatement of Adrine Avakian, an opposition member of the election commission at a central Yerevan polling station (0325), after she was allegedly manhandled and thrown out the door an hour before. Other officials continued to threaten her in the presence of Human Rights Watch researchers, saying, “Stop messing with us or we’ll show you!”
- At polling station 0014/1 in Avan, the number of ballots cast exceeded by several hundred the number of registered voters. When opposition officials and proxies tried to record the irregularity, police allegedly fired warning shots and detained the officials, holding them overnight.
The Demirchian campaign told Human Rights Watch that in the evening, police, fellow election commission members, and unidentified thugs at many polling stations had bullied Demirchian’s commission members and proxies or thrown them out of the polling stations altogether, making it impossible for them to monitor the vote count.
In an unusually strong statement issued yesterday at a press conference in Yerevan, the International Election Observation Mission, consisting of monitors from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, said the election fell short of international standards, and cited “widespread incidence of ballot stuffing throughout the country.” Lord Russell-Johnston—the head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation within the mission, said that ballot stuffing took place even in front of Council of Europe observers.
After the first-round voting, held February 19, police arrested up to two hundred opposition campaign officials and supporters in a clumsy attempt to intimidate and disable the opposition prior to the run-off. Some opposition election commission members and proxies complained to Human Rights Watch of escalating threats and pressure in the days before the runoff. One claimed: “They tried to bribe me. When that didn’t work they said, ‘You know we’ll win all the same. And you know what will happen to all of you then.’” Another said he received a phone call on March 4, during which the unidentified caller said, “Your son is in the army. Bear in mind what could happen to him.” A political activist—whose daughter, in her eighth month of pregnancy, had been taken hostage by police on February 23 to secure his detention—complained to Human Rights Watch of twelve threatening phone calls on March 4.
Pressure on opposition activists has included several waves of arrests on administrative and criminal charges during the last two weeks; arrests continued on election day, when, among others, a former mayor of Yerevan was detained. Opposition activists in areas where Kocharian fared badly in the first round appear to have been particularly targeted.
The International Election Observation Mission had also expressed concern over serious problems and irregularities in the February 19 first-round vote count, and its lack of transparency.
On March 4, police detained Ashot Pogosian, the deputy chief of the Demirchian campaign for Yerevan’s Shengavit district, for allegedly intimidating people in his district. He was detained as he was returning from a meeting with a lawyer to discuss the February 23 detention and possible whereabouts of Romik Mkhitarian, the Demirchian campaign chief for that district. The charges against Mkhitarian are unknown. He was detained, along with several others, while riding in the Shengavit district in an automobile belonging to the Demirchian campaign that was equipped with loudspeakers.
At yesterday’s International Election Observation Mission press conference, Lord Russell Johnston deplored the Armenian authorities’ use of administrative detention against opposition activists as “a misuse of law.”
Up to one hundred opposition activists were handed fifteen-day terms of imprisonment throughout the last two weeks under Armenia’s controversial Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses, for alleged public order violations. Some were released on and after March 1, but many throughout the country remain in custody. In September 2002, the Council of Europe called on Armenia to repeal the code, citing its abusive enforcement. Information on the detainees’ whereabouts has not been given; they were sentenced in closed sessions without recourse to lawyers, and have had no possibility to appeal their sentences.