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The Armenian government should lift new restrictions on freedom of assembly and cease detaining opposition supporters participating in peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 25 and 26, 2008 police detained at least 60 opposition supporters in Yerevan who were peacefully demonstrating against restrictions imposed last week on public assemblies following violent clashes on March 1 between police and opposition protesters. All were released after several hours in detention, but on March 27, another 21 opposition supporters were detained and their fate remains unknown.

“The Armenian government should allow peaceful demonstrations, not ban them,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new restrictions effectively punish peaceful demonstrators for the violence that took place on March 1.”

The Armenian National Assembly passed amendments on March 18 which allow for extensive restrictions on public gatherings following “disturbances leading to the loss of human life.” The wording is a clear reference to the events of March 1, when violence erupted between security forces and protesters after police had earlier used force to disperse demonstrators protesting alleged fraud during the February 19 presidential elections. At least eight people were killed and more than 130 injured. The restrictions on public assembly are indefinite, remaining in place until the completion of an investigation into alleged crimes committed during the disturbance.

Every evening since a three-week state of emergency was lifted on March 21, several hundred opposition activists and supporters have been organizing what they call “public walks” on Northern Avenue, a pedestrian street in the capital’s downtown. They quietly protest against the government’s new restrictions on assembly. At these “public walks,” people walk around, chat with one another, sit on public benches, and play chess or read books. On March 25, police began detaining dozens of those participating in the “public walks.”

The new amendments violate Armenia’s obligation to respect peaceful assembly. The European Convention on Human Rights, to which Armenia is a party, guarantees freedom of assembly, and governments may not place unreasonable restrictions on this right. The European Court of Human Rights has described the right to assemble peacefully as “one of the foundations of a democratic society” and has made clear on a number of occasions that individuals cannot lose their right to peaceful assembly as a result of punishable acts committed by others in the course of a demonstration.

Authorities have used the changes to the law to deny at least six requests from opposition parties to hold demonstrations at Freedom Square in downtown Yerevan. The government justifies the denials by claiming that participants in the March 1 violence may seek to participate in future demonstrations as well.

Human Rights Watch spoke with four opposition supporters detained on March 26. One said: “I was sitting on a bench on Northern Avenue and reading a book, when two uniformed police officers approached me, asking me to go with them. When I asked why, they advised me not to ask questions and to just follow them if I wanted to avoid problems. I obeyed. There were others who did not obey this command, and the police twisted their arms behind their backs and stuffed them into a car.”

Opposition supporters were taken to the Kentron police station, photographed and asked for their names and addresses. Two hours later, they were transferred to Yerevan district police stations near their homes. After several hours, detainees were taken individually to the police department chief for a brief interrogation and then released. No official charges were brought against any of the detainees.

Police officials told Larisa Alaverdian, the former Ombudsperson of Armenia and now an opposition parliamentarian from the opposition Heritage Party, that the detentions of people participating in the “public walks” are done in order to question suspected opposition party activists as part of the criminal investigation into the March 1 events. However, one released detainee told Human Rights Watch that the police chief was trying to talk him out of participating in the “public walks” on Northern Avenue.

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