‘And Injustice for All’: The Recent Attacks on Activists in Armenia

YEREVAN (A.W.)—For the past 20 days, activists in Yerevan have been staging protests against corruption, inflation, controversial construction plans, and President Serge Sarkisian’s recent decision to join the Russian-led Customs Union, among other issues. They have been met with violence, by both police officers and organized gangs on the streets. Observers claim the violent reactions have a common thread. The police say they are investigating the incidents, but activists are skeptical about the willingness of the authorities to reveal the perpetrators.

Many protestors affiliated with anti-corruption organizations have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of two municipality members—Misak Hambardzumyan, the director of Yerevan Trans, and Henrik Navasardyan, the chief of the Transport Department—and the implementation of reforms to diminish widespread corruption. The calls for resignation is the ultimate manifestation of anti-corruption and anti-inflation sentiments among the activists, who continue their peaceful protests by gathering in front of the municipality building on a daily basis.

Since the first days of the protests, during a period of two weeks between Aug. 22 and Sept. 5, there have been numerous life-threatening attacks against activists, including members of such organizations as Transparency International or the Anti-corruption Center. Many accuse the police of ignoring the reports filed by the victims, and failing to carry out proper investigations. One activist who had been detained by police on multiple occasions claimed they were acting in a systemized and predetermined manner. The attacks reportedly have some similarities: They occurred during the night. The victims reported that once they left the protest scene (the vicinity of the municipality building) and were a few streets away, a group of 5-10 men—clad in the same black uniform and armed with blackjacks—approached and asked whether they had taken part in the municipality protests. After getting a positive response, the victims were beaten for a couple of minutes.

To cite a few examples, on Sept. 5, political activists Haygag Arshamyan and Suren Saghatelyan were attacked by a group of eight men, resulting in serious injuries, including swelling and nose fractures. Another case was reported by 21-year-old Arman Aleksanyan, who was attacked and beaten, with an injury to his head, on the night of Sept. 4. Many other protestors, such as Anushavan Krikorian, Mihran Markarian, Papken Der-Krikorian, and Mikayel Donoyan, were similarly attacked and injured during recent days.

Most of the victims claim there is a direct correlation between the perpetrated attacks and the police department’s reluctance to arrest the criminals. Argishti Kiviryan, the editor of Armenia Today and a civil activist, told the press that the government in Armenia is using its two main pillars—the police and the criminal world—to break the emerging civil activism. Others have voiced their loss of trust in the police, while some have warned that they will resort to private means of self-defense.

What has perplexed activists is the fact that most of the victims say the attacks took place on streets with security cameras, leading some to believe the police are concealing the sequence of attacks. The above-mentioned municipality members are seen as the primary culprits behind the aggression and the attacks. “I have no guarantees today that while walking in the streets of Yerevan some people won’t approach me and subject me to some kind of violence. I am dealing with political persecution in terms of my professional and public activities. It can’t be defined as anything else,” said Kiviryan.

Meanwhile, tensions increased between the authorities and protesters when President Sarkisian announced Armenia’s decision to join a Russian-led economic union on Sept. 3. The news led to widespread condemnation and complaints on behalf of political parties and NGO’s who see the move as a violation of basic democratic principles. in a Sept. 6 press conference,  Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) political affairs director Giro Manoyan emphasized that a government elected by its own people must not take such decisions without the consent or even the approval of its people and of parliament. In the days that followed, protesters gathered at the presidential palace to voice opposition to Armenia’s membership in the Custom’s Union.

On Sept. 6, demonstrators also gathered outside the Republican Party headquarters to protest Sarkisian’s decision, which they saw as an attempt to restore the Soviet Union. Police reportedly outnumbered the journalists and protesters on the scene. Talking to reporters, Levon Barseghyan said activists are displeased that the public was not sufficiently informed of the details of the agreement with the Custom’s Union. Clashes between police and activists continued when the latter attempted to continue their demonstration outside of the Presidential Palace. Several people were detained.

In light of the ongoing violence, Denis Krivosheev, the Europe and Central Asia deputy program director of Amnesty International, said in a press release that the Armenian government must ensure that the work of the activists is carried out without any obstacles and interference. Kriovsheev concluded that an impartial investigation must proceed in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The police force of a given government has the duty to provide protection against any aggression that may endanger the life of its citizens. Yet, we are witnessing the exact opposite in Armenia, where the police are supporting the interests of the ruling elite at the expense of all other citizens. Are we witnessing a return to the Hobbesian state of nature where—in the absence of justice and a law enforcer—each person is obliged to resort to personal means to defend himself?

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Varak Ketsemanian

Varak Ketsemanian is a graduate of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (2014-2016). His master’s thesis titled “Communities in Conflict: the Hunchakian Revolutionary Party 1890-1894” examines the socio-economic role of violence in shaping inter-communal and ethnic relations by doing a local history of the Armenian Revolutionary Movement in the Ottoman Empire. Ketsemanian’s work tackles problems such as the development and polarization of mainstream historiographies, inter-communal stratifications, nationalism, and the relationship of the Ottoman State with some of its Anatolian provinces. He is currently completing a PhD at Princeton University, where his doctoral dissertation will focus on the social history of the National Constitution of Ottoman Armenians in 1863, and the communal dynamics/mechanisms that it created on imperial, communal, and provincial levels. Ketsemanian’s research relates to the development of different forms of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, revolutionary violence, and constitutional movements.

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