The Armenian government should launch a prompt and independent investigation into the use of lethal force by security forces to quell demonstrations and rioting overnight on March 1, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. The violence occurred after a 20-day state of emergency was declared by President Robert Kocharian in response to an alleged threat to public order posed by opposition demonstrators.
Clashes between police and demonstrators in downtown Yerevan, the capital, on the night of March 1-2 resulted in at least eight deaths, according to the Armenian Health Ministry. Military forces deployed in Yerevan helped suppress the protests and riots. The ministry also reported that at least 131 people – including 57 police – were injured, some of them seriously. Many demonstrators have been reported missing, according to journalists and other observers in Yerevan.
“The Armenian government should swiftly investigate whether the police and army used lethal force against protesters in accordance with international standards,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While the government has a duty to maintain civic order, lethal force may only be used when strictly necessary to protect life.”
The protests began when tens of thousands of supporters of opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian took to the streets in downtown Yerevan on February 20 to denounce the declared election results and what they alleged to have been electoral fraud. The protests continued peacefully on Freedom Square for the next 10 days, with some demonstrators camping out on the square in tents. Early in the morning on March 1, Armenian security violently dispersed the crowd.
Several demonstrators and eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that violent clashes started late in the afternoon of March 1, after demonstrators refused to abide by police instructions to disperse. Police then shot tracer bullets, allegedly resulting in the first casualties, including the death of a demonstrator.
Later in the morning of March 1, protesters gathered in front of the French Embassy in downtown Yerevan. Their numbers grew substantially during the day, as did the police presence. Observers reported that police were equipped with rubber truncheons, electric-shock devices, and water cannons, and that military personnel arrived in armored personnel carriers. Several journalists present told Human Rights Watch that angry masses of people prepared for a confrontation with the security forces by arming themselves with stones, wooden sticks, and iron bars. Another demonstrator explained that people used nearby park benches and fences to find metal and wooden objects.
By about 5 or 6 p.m., tens of thousands of people had gathered near the French Embassy. A demonstrator told Human Rights Watch that the crowd wanted to march towards the home of Ter-Petrosian, who has been under effective house arrest since police had cordoned off his home. Demonstrators made a cordon around the rally area using cars and buses.
Violent clashes broke out, according to eyewitnesses, when a tracer bullet apparently struck and killed a demonstrator. Angry demonstrators cried for revenge and attacked the security forces. A local observer who watched a video recording of the events told Human Rights Watch that the video showed how demonstrators, demanding revenge, placed the dead body of a man, apparently in his 50s, on top of a car. Eyewitnesses reported that demonstrators then attacked police, who retreated. One protestor told Human Rights Watch how a group of young demonstrators chased police, set fire to police cars, and broke shop windows.
Persons in the vicinity told Human Rights Watch that they heard weapons being fired. A local source who watched video footage of the aftermath of some of the clashes told Human Rights Watch: “I saw thick layers of blood, parts of human bodies, several dead bodies... at least eight police cars were on fire... a lot of wounded, who cried for help and water, a lot of people with open head wounds, claiming that they had been assaulted by police... I saw also wounded police, a lot of blood, pools of blood.”
“Police and security forces clearly faced an extremely difficult situation,” said Cartner. “But they are still obliged to adhere to standards for the use of lethal force.”
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials call upon law enforcement officials in the dispersal of violent assemblies to use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by reports from journalists and local observers that many demonstrators have gone missing. In the current state of emergency, with an effective media blackout, relatives have little access to information about their missing family members.
“Armenian authorities should promptly make the casualty list public, as well as the names of those arrested and places of detention,” said Cartner. “The authorities should also not use the state of emergency to unnecessarily restrict freedom of information.”
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Armenia is a party, governments may limit certain ICCPR rights only during a state of emergency that is declared during a “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” Limits on rights and freedoms may only be to the extent strictly required by the situation. Governments must at all times guarantee the right to life, the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to a fair trial, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion, among other rights. The European Convention on Human Rights provides similar protections.