Statement on unrest in Armenia by FIDH member organisation Civil Society Institute (CSI)

03/08/2016
Our Movement

(Yerevan) Early on the morning of 17 July 2016, a group of armed men [1] referred to as “Sasna Tsrer” stormed a patrol service police regiment in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district. One serviceman (Col. Artur Vanoyan) was killed. In addition, a number of police officers and two of the armed man were wounded, [2] though no exact official confirmation the number of wounded was given.

According to available information, nine people, including two high ranking police officers and an emergency service medical driver were taken hostage. [3] Contradictory information on the hostage crisis issued by police and opposition media sources has meant that information is often incomplete, disputed and difficult to verify independently. Nevertheless, it has been confirmed that negotiations between the state authorities and representatives of the armed group saw all hostages, including Deputy Chief of Armenian Police Vardan Yeghiazaryan and Deputy Chief of Yerevan Police Valery Osipyan, eventually released by 23 July. These releases were secured on the condition that a press center be established in the territory of the police regiment.

During a press conference held by the representatives of “Sasna Tsrer” on July 23, two main demands were formulated: (1) the immediate release of political prisoners, including the group’s leader, Jirayr Sefilyan (arrested on 20 June 2016 and charged with possession of an illegal weapon); and (2) the resignation of the incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan [4] with a view to a further transition to a government of national confidence.

On 27 July, police reported that “Sasna Tsrer” had once again taken four medical personnel hostage. The hostages had been sent to provide medical assistance to members of the group, who had been wounded during an exchange of with police forces. [5] Although one hostage has now been released, two doctors and a nurse remain in the custody of the armed group. [6] Whilst some among the armed group are wounded and five others apprehended during police operations, the hostage crisis now enters its 13th day. Those arrested are currently subject to charges of unlawful seizure of buildings by an organized group and illegal possession of arms.

A number of people affiliated with a radical opposition party that “Sasna Tsrer” also identifies with, were arrested for two months and charged with aiding and abetting the group for calling upon members of the armed group and expressing support or giving information on the current situation. [7]

Unlawful Detention and arbitrary arrests
In the meantime, since the early morning of 17 July, dozens of citizens have been apprehended by Armenia’s Police and Security forces without being properly informed of the reasons for their detention nor charges against them. According to information available to CSI, minors are among those detained. The detainees have reportedly had no opportunity to inform their close relatives about the place and details of detention. They have been deprived of the right to legal aid and lawyers were not granted access to the police stations. While most of the detainees have been released, their detention without charge was longer than that prescribed by the law. Dozens were kept for hours without food in a gym situated on the premises of police force. A number of detainees stated that they were subjected to violence by policemen.

Aside from press releases by the National Security Service and press conferences by the Deputy Police Chief of Armenia, no other official reaction has been issued by the Government or President. Only on 22 July, five days after the seizure of the police regiment, did a statement appear on President Sargasyan’s website condemning the militants. The first official statement on the situation was issued by Police on the 8th day of the crisis.

Violation of the right to peaceful assemblies
In response to the government’s approach to the handling of the hostage crisis and in support of “Sasna Tsrer”, anti-government protesters have been gathering in the vicinity of the seized police regiment since 18 July, leading to violent clashes with police and dozens of injured on both sides. [8] On a number of occasions between 17 and 27 July, police disproportionately intervened in the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, not only dispersing protestors but detaining them without notifying them of the grounds for their detention. As a result, over one hundred persons were apprehended from the streets in Yerevan, without charge. The whereabouts of some of the de facto detainees was not disclosed to their family members. The police continue to follow the same pattern of detaining people at unauthorized locations, hindering access to lawyers, and keeping people in detention without charge for longer hours than legally permitted.

Detention of a human rights activist Levon Barseghyan
Human rights activists who were particularly active during protester rallies have also been targeted by police arbitrariness. At around 3am on 27 July, a human rights defender, Levon Barseghyan, was summoned to the police station and de facto detained for over 15 hours. Only at around 7pm was he officially arrested under a made-up charge of possession of weapon (a penknife) and placed in a temporary police detention facility. While in police custody on 27 July, police hindered Barseghyan’s access to legal counsel of his choosing and detained him without legal grounds. On 29 July 2016, after receiving an expert opinion on the knife, Barseghyan was released and his prosecution dropped. However, his detention was widely seen as a way of silencing him and preventing from participating in protests or criticizing the President or police.

The Civil Society Institute (CSI) condemns in the strongest possible terms the unlawful practices of the Armenian police and calls upon the Armenian authorities to ensure that any response respects domestic and international obligations protecting human rights and freedoms and demands that police and the government:

- Immediately put an end to arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions coupled with unlawful use of force;
- Not hinder in any way the effective exercise of the right to a peaceful assembly;
- Put into place measures to prevent further abuses, such as investigation by law-enforcement agencies of the above mentioned violations and prompt identification and prosecution of persons found responsible and the compensation for victims whose rights were infringed as a result of the illegal activities of the police;
- Ensure the proper treatment of those in detention, especially the wounded.

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