Armenia's Hostage Crisis: Protesters Arrested, but Not Gunmen
With no end in sight to Yerevan’s police-hostage crisis, the arrest of scores of people – political activists, protesters and, in some cases, non-protesters alike -- appears to be widening divisions within Armenia between the government and the governed.
Although police do not provide details, human rights organizations claim that over 200 people have been arrested from different parts of the Armenian capital since gunmen from a fringe extremist opposition group took over a police station on July 17.
On the night of July 20, that tally presumably increased after a violent clash between police and hundreds of protesters attempting to bring food to the gunmen. The health ministry reported that at least 51 people were injured, including 25 police officers. The ombudsman's office indicated that reporters were among the wounded.
Protesters built a barricade against police, but by dawn law enforcement had reportedly mopped up the resistance. The number of arrests has not yet been released, although opposition MP Nikol Pashinian stated that 15 members of his own party, Civil Contract, had been taken in, Panarmenian.net reported.
The clash, which police tried to put down by using tear gas and batons, topped off three days of building tensions over attempts to stifle any anti-government protests.
Among those arrested on July 20 was Karo Egnukian, a member of the gunmen’s organization, Founding Parliament, which has been charged before with advocating violence for political change. Egnukian is charged with supporting the gunmen from the outside and maintaining a telephone link with them.
Some other arrests, however, appear to have no immediate connection to the gunmen.
Activist Davit Sanasarian, a co-leader of last year’s Electric Yerevan demonstrations, claims that police on July 19 grabbed him and some friends while they were standing with anti-government protesters in Yerevan’s central Liberty Square. Some witnesses claim that Sanasarian fainted from the beating he received. The report could not be independently corroborated.
Others recount how police allegedly spat on detainees, and kept them without adequate water or space.
“I can call what is happening a parade of legal violations. With no reason or grounds, a simple manhunt is taking place,” charged Armenian Helsinki Commission Chairperson Avetik Ishkhanian.
Police are looking into each report of abuse received, underlined police national police spokesperson Ashot Aharonian at a July 20 press conference.
“There isn’t a report about excessive force or violence by the police which wasn’t subjected to scrutiny and investigation,” he claimed. An internal investigation is ongoing, he added.
Attending the media-gathering were two of the gunmen’s parents, who both asked their sons to come home – clearly, something police would welcome as well.
The arrests appear to be fueling longstanding popular frustration with the government, and, as the standoff drags on, expanding pockets of sympathy for the gunmen. Some on social media now justify the group's actions, even comparing them with legendary Armenian heroes who defeated dragons or other enemies.
Impromptu rallies have been held in the city center and near the Erebuni police station itself over the past few days.
The tension also appears to be wearing on those living near the station. On July 19, fights broke out with police when residents tried to break through a blockade of the seized station’s street.
Residents told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that they no longer receive gas, can’t use public transportation and on July 19 lost their water supplies.
Others chanted in sympathy with the gunmen, the service reported.
The largely grey-haired, armed group, which calls itself Sasna Tsrer (“The Daredevils of Sassoun”), has called for President Serzh Sargsyan's resignation as well as the release from prison of the Founding Parliament's leader, Jirair Sefilian, charged with plotting a government overthrow.
The group, which has killed one policeman, appears to see itself on a heroic mission. They claimed in a July 19 video message that they are ready to sacrifice their bodies as “bridges” to a better Armenia.
Though police talks with the group continue, matters appeared to come to a standstill after the gunmen proposed taking the chief of police in exchange for their several police hostages.
At a July 20 press-conference, psychologist Samvel Khudoian charged that the group is not capable of a sober assessment of their current situation.
“At the moment, I see these people like those going for self-sacrifice . . .Now, they could be destroyed [by police]. And only this public protest . . . prevents that from happening,” Khudoian said, The Armenian Times reported.
Neither President Serzh Sargsyan nor other high-rank officials have made a statement about the Erebuni hostage situation.
On social media, some Armenians, drily commenting on the government’s silence, ask if it’s time to hold elections for a new president and new parliament
US Ambassador to Yerevan Richard Mills on July 20 emphasized to reporters the need for cool heads to prevail.
“Now it’s time that all Armenians display respect for the rule of law for the situation to resolve peacefully, which, in my opinion, is what everyone wants,” he said, Armenpress reported.
-- Caucasus News Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this blog.