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Following his inauguration on April 9, Armenia’s new president Serzh Sargsian should investigate last month’s violence and take other decisive steps to address the human rights crisis in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged Armenia’s international partners to help the country meet its international commitments and get it on track to democratic development.

Sargsian takes office after winning the February 19 presidential elections, which the opposition said were marred by fraud. Several weeks later, violent clashes between opposition demonstrators and security forces left at least eight people dead and hundreds injured.

“The new Armenian leader is facing serious challenges,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He should take decisive steps to investigate the excessive use of police force and lift restrictions on freedom of assembly.”

On February 20, tens of thousands of supporters of opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian took to the streets in the capital Yerevan to denounce the declared election results that brought Sargsian to power. They held peaceful protests for 10 days on Yerevan’s Freedom Square, with some camping out overnight.

Human Rights Watch has documented how, on the morning on March 1, 2008, Armenian security forces moved in to disperse the peaceful demonstrators. Later that day, some demonstrators and security forces clashed violently, which resulted in at least eight deaths, including one security official, and hundreds of injuries. The same night, President Robert Kocharian declared a state of emergency and imposed serious restrictions on civil liberties, including a complete ban on public rallies. Police arrested some 100 people and charged them with the attempted violent overthrow of the government, organizing mass disorder, resisting police, and other criminal offenses. Human Rights Watch documented serious due process violations during and after arrest, including denying them a lawyer and ill-treatment in police custody. Security officials censored newspapers and prohibited the opposition media from publishing.

Just before lifting the state of emergency on March 21, 2008, the Armenian National Assembly passed amendments to the law on public assembly that severely restricts public gatherings, a move criticized by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Human Rights Watch considers the amendments incompatible with Armenia’s obligations to respect freedom of assembly under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The government denied numerous opposition requests to hold public rallies, and Human Rights Watch documented the brief detention of at least 90 people who participated in peaceful “public walks” organized by political opposition supporters.

A broader crackdown on opposition supporters included repeated harassment and interrogations of opposition candidate representatives in the regions, tax audits of opposition-owned businesses and pro-opposition press, and dismissing opposition supporters and their family members from their jobs.

“Armenia’s new president has a chance to start with a clean slate,” said Cartner. “This is an opportunity to restore Armenia’s tarnished image, and Sargsian should not miss it.”

Human Rights Watch recommends that Sargsian take the following steps to address the post-election human rights crisis in Armenia:

  • Investigate alleged excessive use of force by police on the morning of March 1, 2008 and later during the day;

  • Ensure that such investigation is in accordance with Armenia’s obligations under the ECHR by accepting international expertise and assistance to ensure independence and the public’s trust;

  • Stop arbitrary detentions and provide full due process rights to all detainees from the moment of their apprehension;

  • Investigate all allegations of ill-treatment during arrests and in police custody, and release those who have been arbitrarily detained for alleged participation in unlawful demonstrations;

  • Lift extensive restrictions on freedom of assembly by repealing the amendments to the public assembly law; bring the amended law into line with the European Convention on Human Rights; and follow recommendations provided by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; and

  • Stop harassment of the press and opposition supporters, including detentions, repeated interrogations, dismissals, and usage of tax audit as a political tool for pressure.

The United States, European Union, and Armenia’s other international partners should set clear benchmarks for the country’s new leadership, taking above-mentioned steps as preconditions for future cooperation and assistance. This would allow the country to get back on track on democratic development and in line with its international commitments.

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