The police chief of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, was sacked this week. The sudden dismissal of Ashot Karapetyan was due to his “failing to prevent violent attacks on protesters and journalists” during protests in late July, Armenian authorities announced. The same day, authorities also reprimanded 13 other officers, and just three days earlier, another five officers were suspended.
The suspension and even sacking of police officers, especially such senior figures, was dramatic and could be a sign that there will be accountability for what happened on July 29, when police violently dispersed a crowd of protesters. The protest was one of the almost nightly, largely peaceful, gatherings that had taken place in Yerevan starting on July 17, when armed gunmen seized a police station in Yerevan, killing one policeman and taking several other police hostages.
My colleague and I arrived in Yerevan just hours after the July 29 protest was violently broken up. We interviewed people who described in great detail how police had fired stun grenades directly into peaceful crowds, causing horrible injuries including first- and second-degree burns and blast injuries. At least 60 people received treatment in hospitals that night. We also documented how police assaulted journalists reporting on the demonstrations. Multiple witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch identified Karapetyan as the police officer who had personally led the operation on the ground.
We also documented how Armenian authorities arbitrarily detained dozens of protesters and beat many of them, some severely. Officials also pressed unjustified criminal charges against at least 44 protest leaders and participants, and denied many of them access to a lawyer or the right to make a phone call.
Four days after arriving in Armenia, my colleague and I presented our findings to Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS), the body in charge of investigating crimes committed by law enforcement agents. Although SIS had initiated several criminal investigations with limited scopes, we were encouraged by its decision later that day to look at a wider range of possible violations committed by police.
As we interviewed victims last week, many spoke of their overwhelming mistrust of the Armenian authorities, largely because of impunity for past police abuse. The government now has a chance to rectify that record and start the urgent task of rebuilding the public’s trust. It’s taken some important first steps. Now it should ensure swift and thorough investigations to establish individual accountability for unjustified police violence throughout the protests, and train police properly in crowd control. This may help ensure that the bloody events of July 29 are never repeated.