Thousands of people continue to flood Armenia’s capital Yerevan, protesting the former president’s shift to the prime minister’s seat after his two terms as President finished. Opponents of Serzh Sargsyan see this as an attempt to hold onto power as the country moves to a new parliamentary system of governance. Sargsyan was officially approved as the new prime minister on Tuesday.

Protest against Armenia's ruling Republican party's nomination of former President Serzh Sarksyan as its candidate for prime minister, in Yerevan, Armenia April 13, 2018.

© 2018 Grigor Yeritsyan

The Yerevan demonstrations have been led by prominent opposition parliament member Nikol Pashinian. In acts of civil disobedience, the protesters have blocked government buildings in the city center and paralyzed major streets and bridges. The protests have been mostly peaceful, but brief clashes with police on April 16 left 46 people injured, including six policemen.

In recent days, police have rounded up scores of protesters throughout the city. Officials say they detained, and subsequently released, 87 demonstrators on April 18, 30 of whom face administrative charges. Of those not charged, it seems that police detained many of them not because of their own behavior but as witnesses in ongoing investigations into “holding rallies in violation of the established procedures,” or “participation in mass riots”. For example, a lawyer for 13 people held in Yerevan’s Erebuni police station told Human Rights Watch that her clients were detained around 11am on April 18, held for several hours, handed down summons and then questioned as witnesses in an ongoing investigation. Another lawyer shared a similar story of about 20 people being interrogated as witnesses in another precinct.

While police can detain protesters who commit wrongdoing, many of these detentions appear arbitrary, as the protesters seem to have done nothing but legitimately exercise their right to freedom of assembly. Under Armenian law, a witness can be detained for interrogation only if they fail to comply with summons to appear.  That was not the case for those detained at these protests. Armenian law also only allows detention for up to three hours before the detention has to be recorded or the person released, yet in some cases, police held detainees up to nine hours without doing so.

One should not underestimate the challenges Armenia’s police are facing in maintaining law and order, but the ongoing protests are no justification to arbitrarily detain people.