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Armenia: Skewed Prosecution Over 2008 Clashes

Ensure Impartial Investigation and Justice in Use of Force Against Protesters

(New York) - Armenia has yet to hold the police accountable for their excessive use of force a year after a day of clashes with protesters that led to at least 10 deaths, Human Rights Watch said in a comprehensive report today.

The 64-page report, "Democracy on Rocky Ground: Armenia's Disputed 2008 Presidential Election, Post-Election Violence, and the One-Sided Pursuit of Accountability," details the clashes between police and protesters in Armenia's capital, Yerevan, on March 1, 2008, in the wake of the disputed February 2008 presidential polls. It also documents the ill-treatment of individuals detained in connection with the violence, and lack of comprehensive investigation and accountability for excessive use of force on March 1 and in its aftermath. The report is based on more than 80 interviews carried out over three research missions in Armenia in 2008 and 2009.

"The full picture of what happened almost a year ago in Yerevan has yet to emerge," said Giorgi Gogia, researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "This much is clear: at various times on March 1, security forces used excessive force against demonstrators."

On March 1, 2008, police clashed with protesters in downtown Yerevan, demonstrating against disputed results of the presidential election. In several episodes in different parts of the city, police variously set upon protesters without warning or resistance, negotiated, withdrew, and returned to the offensive and finally fought a pitched battle with a small group of protesters. As a result, at least 10 people died - eight protesters and two police officers - and scores were injured.

While the Armenian authorities have investigated, prosecuted, and convicted dozens of opposition members, sometimes in flawed and politically motivated trials, in connection with the demonstration and violence, they have not prosecuted a single representative of the law enforcement agencies for excessive use of force.

Serj Sargsyan, the prime minister, was declared the winner of the February 19, 2008, presidential election over the opposition candidate, Levon Ter-Petrossian. A group of protesters contending that Sargsyan's victory was the result of fraud established a continuous protest on Yerevan's Freedom Square immediately after the election, with daily rallies; some camped out overnight in tents set up on the square.

Human Rights Watch research indicated that police used excessive force in a pre-dawn raid on the tents on March 1, justified as a search for weapons. This led to a much larger demonstration in front of the French Embassy in downtown Yerevan. By evening, with a major, violent confrontation unfolding on the streets of the capital, the outgoing president, Robert Kocharyan, declared a 20-day state of emergency during which public gatherings and strikes were banned and media freedoms were significantly curtailed.

"The authorities' response to the March 1 events has been one-sided," said Gogia. "The fact that police were themselves under attack at times by no means excuses them for incidents when they used excessive force."

The report also documents ill-treatment of detainees and other violations of due process rights following the March 1 events. Human Rights Watch spoke to people who had been beaten during arrest, and assaulted, verbally abused, and threatened while in police custody. Many detainees were denied the right to inform their families of their whereabouts, and were refused access to lawyers of their own choosing.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to investigate the use of police force in the March 1 clashes, emphasizing that each distinct police action during the day should be assessed separately. Where there was evidence that the use of force went outside the boundaries of legitimate policing, all the perpetrators (including those who gave the orders) should be prosecuted. Human Rights Watch also urged an investigation into all allegations of ill-treatment of people detained in connection with March 1 events, also leading to identification and prosecution of those responsible.

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