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Armenia: Violence at Polling Stations Mars Elections

Assailants Target Opposition Activists, Observers and Journalists

The Armenian government should investigate alleged assaults on election observers and journalists that marred the presidential election on February 19, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. According to victim testimonies taken by Human Rights Watch, assailants beat and threatened opposition party activists, domestic observers, and journalists who attempted to document election fraud at polling stations during the presidential vote.

“These election-day attacks targeted the very people trying to ensure the integrity of Armenia’s vote,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Armenian government should carry out independent and speedy investigations to ensure justice is served and to send the message that intimidation won’t be tolerated.”

On February 20, the Central Election Commission declared Prime Minister Serzh Sargsian the winner of the elections with 52.8 percent of the vote. Sargsian had the backing of current president Robert Kocharian. Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosian was the main opposition challenger and won 21.5 percent, according to official tallies.

In nine cases documented by Human Rights Watch, assailants intimidated, threatened, and even violently attacked opposition party activists, domestic observers and journalists at eight polling stations in and around the capital, Yerevan. Victims variously described their assailants as “big guys,” “athletic,” “tough,” and apparently supporters of Sargsian. Most victims had been attempting to expose what they believed to be violations of electoral rules, such as incorrect voters’ lists, intimidation of voters, violations of the right to a secret ballot, and ballot-box stuffing. None of the victims was able or willing to return to the polling station to continue observing the voting.

In several incidents, the assaults took place in the presence of police and polling station officials who did not intervene, and in one case a police officer appeared to assist the assailants. Some victims reported the attacks to police, who are investigating.

Human Rights Watch called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to look into election-related violence and ensure that its final report on the vote records these incidents.

In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, assailants grabbed a Ter-Petrosian proxy (a candidate’s authorized representative) at a polling station in Yerevan, forced her into a car and drove her to a remote area. There, they beat her in the head and face, threatened to rape her and attack her family, and abandoned her. She eventually made her way to a police station where she filed a complaint. She is still suffering from headaches and other medical repercussions of the attack.

At least three journalists were attacked. Lusine Barsegian of the newspaper Haikakan Zhamankak was beaten, and had her camera and voice recorder stolen, when she attempted to document what she believed to be intimidation of voters at a polling station in Yerevan’s Erebuni district. A cameraman from the independent A1+ television station was beaten and had his camera taken at the same polling station. Two domestic election observers, Armen Matirosian, a member of parliament from the opposition Heritage party, and Zarui Postandjian, an observer from a nongovernmental organization, were also attacked at this polling station after they tried to raise alleged election violations with polling station officials.

The OSCE election monitors stated that the elections were held “mostly in line” with international commitments.

Tens of thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters took to the streets in downtown Yerevan on February 20 and 21 to protest the outcome of the elections and what they believe to be widespread electoral fraud.

“The Armenian authorities should ensure that no harm is done to peaceful demonstrators,” said Cartner. “Armenia claims to be a democratic country, and that means allowing people to exercise their right to freedom of assembly.”

Armenia has a history of flawed elections and harassment of opposition parties. In March 2003, Human Rights Watch documented widespread ballot stuffing and intimidation during Armenia’s presidential election runoff. Human Rights Watch documented mass arrests of opposition supporters, violent dispersals of demonstrations, and raids on opposition party headquarters in April 2004. The protests derived from the government’s failure to address the many violations of electoral rules documented in the 2003 presidential election.

Details of Assaults

Polling station 13/16
Lusine Barsegian, a journalist for Haikakan Zhamankak told Human Rights Watch she went to polling station 13/16 in the Erebuni district of Yerevan at approximately 2 p.m. on February 19. When she arrived, she saw that the polling station was very overcrowded. Some unidentified people were talking to voters in what she believed to be an attempt to influence their votes, and other people were observing the voters closely as they cast their ballots. Barsegian attempted to interview the central election commission representative responsible for the polling station about the apparent violations. At that point, policemen and a few unidentified men forced her out of the polling station. Barsegian protested, saying, “I have the right to be here. I have the right to take photographs.”

With the assistance of Armen Matirosian, a member of parliament from the Heritage party, who was an authorized election observer, Barsegian again entered to the polling station. When she again attempted to take photographs, an unidentified man in plainclothes kicked her in the stomach and grabbed her camera and voice recorder. Other men also punched and kicked Matirosian. According to Barsegian, police stood by and did not intervene. After this attack, Barsegian and Matirosian fled the station and filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office.

When Zarui Postandjian, an observer from the nongovernmental organization Against State Violence, heard about the incident, she went to polling station 13/16. Upon arriving, she saw a severely overcrowded polling station and police and unidentified people observing voters as they marked their ballots. Postandjian has stated that she tried to take photos of the polling station when a policeman came up from behind her and hit her. At the same time, an unidentified man tried to grab her camera, and both he and the policeman punched her. Another observer came to assist her, and they both fled. Postandjian did not return to the polling station. Postandjian filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, which opened a criminal investigation.

Arabkir district
Reuben Armanian, a proxy for Ter-Petrosian, went to polling station 4/26 in Arabkir at approximately 7:30 p.m. to replace some of his colleagues who had been observing the conduct of the voting during the day. He told Human Rights Watch that when he arrived, a group of 40 to 50 athletic-looking men were standing in and near the polling station. Approximately 10 of these men attacked Armanian, punching him on the head and body. “What could I do but look for a way to escape them?” Armanian told Human Rights Watch. “I ran 10-20 meters and no one followed me. But I couldn’t return to the polling station because these guys were still there.” Photos, obtained by Human Rights Watch, of Armanian two days after the attack show him with a severely black and swollen right eye.

Human Rights Watch also received reports that at least two other proxies and observers were attacked at polling stations in Arabkir. One victim was too afraid to speak to Human Rights Watch out of fear of repercussions.

Kentron district
Hovsep Hovsepian, a cameraman with the independent A1+ television station heard about election violations at polling station 9/6 in the Kentron district of Yerevan. Hovsepian told Human Rights Watch that when he got out of his car at the polling station, a large group of unidentified men who had gathered outside the polling station attacked him and attempted to take his camera. When Hovsepian resisted, one of the men kicked him in the stomach and grabbed the camera. The assailants took the video cassette out of the camera, smashed it, and prepared to destroy the camera as well. At that moment, the driver of the car came out and the men began to attack him instead. Hovsepian and the driver broke free of the attackers, returned to the car and left the polling station.

Unidentified district #1
An opposition party proxy who did not want to be identified out of concerns for his safety told Human Rights Watch that at a polling station in one Yerevan district he saw violations of election regulations and asked that the election commission officials respond. After a few minutes, a group of 15 to 20 people attacked him, punching and kicking him until he lost consciousness. He was then taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He suffered broken ribs and pain in his kidneys as a result of the beating.

Unidentified district #2
One Ter-Petrosian supporter who asked not to be identified also described to Human Rights Watch how assailants removed him from a polling station, forced him into a car and drove him away. At a location unknown to the victim, a large group of men beat him severely in the head and body, saying that they were beating him because of his support of the opposition. As a result, the victim suffered several broken ribs.

Abovian, about 20 kilometers from Yerevan
Larissa Tarosian, a proxy for Ter-Petrosian, has told Human Rights Watch that she went to polling station 28/7 in Abovian at approximately 7:30 a.m. Three large, athletic men approached her, and two of them dragged her out of the polling station. Tarosian struggled to free herself, but was dragged across the yard and shoved into a car. The three men drove Tarosian to a deserted area outside the town. After taking her out of the car, one man beat her on the head and face. “They told me that I should be silent and not say anything more about the elections,” she told Human Rights Watch. “They threatened to rape me. They threatened to harm my family.” The men then left Tarosian in the deserted area and drove away.

Tarosian was unable to return to the polling station because of her condition. She went directly to the police, who ordered a forensic medical examination. Two days after the attack, she complained of headaches, dizziness, and other medical problems.

Gurgen Eghizarian, a proxy for Ter-Petrosian and a former deputy head of the National Security Service, received information that election observers at polling station 28/6 in Abovian had been kidnapped and beaten. He has stated that he went to the polling station together with Erjan Abgarian, a 68-year-old Ter-Petrosian proxy and former head of the customs service. Election commission representatives and observers there denied that they had seen anything happen to the observers, but Eghizarian demanded that the senior election commission representative sign a statement about what had happened. While at the polling station, a group of seven or eight men armed with pistols attacked Eghizarian, his son, and Abgarian, beating them on the kidneys, ribs, and back. Eghizarian told Human Rights Watch that the men also threatened him and the others saying, “Sargsian will be president, and if you go against him, you will be killed.” He suffers headaches and has a bruise on his forehead as a result of the assault.

A senior official for Ter-Petrosian told Human Rights Watch that at least three other proxies were beaten in Abovian on election day.

Another Ter-Petrosian proxy who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that large, athletic men would arrive periodically at another polling station in Abovian and would take prospective voters aside “for a little chat,” apparently in order to influence their votes. These same men also spoke to election commission officials, observers, and candidates’ proxies, and threatened them should they speak out about any violations. This same proxy told Human Rights Watch that in mid-afternoon some men took him aside and threatened him and told him, “You didn’t see anything.” He claimed that these men were responsible for stealing and falsifying ballots and stuffing the ballot box at this polling station. Police stood by and did not respond. This proxy stated that he continued to fear for his safety and had sent his children to another location and was reluctant to leave his own apartment.

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