Friday, March 21, 2008

Kocharian Warns Opposition Against More Protests

20-03-08 16:53

President Robert Kocharian said Thursday that he will not prolong the state of emergency in Yerevan but warned that Armenian security bodies would not hesitate to break up more anti-government demonstrations planned by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.

Kocharian also effectively dismissed international calls for an independent investigation into the March 1 clashes between riot police and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters demanding a re-run of the February 19 presidential election.

The violence, which left at left at least seven opposition supporters and one police officer dead, led to the imposition of the 20-day state of emergency. All rallies and other public gatherings in the capital were banned as a result.

Kocharian said the Armenian authorities will not sanction rallies for “some time” even after the expiry of emergency rule on Friday. “People who shot at law-enforcers [on March 1] are still at large, there is no guarantee that the same people will not try to organize various provocations or shootings at the next rally and then blame that on the police,” he told a news conference.

The Armenian parliament approved this week a government bill that will make it easier for the authorities to prohibit anti-government protests. They will now be able to do that by citing threats to “state security, public order, public health and morality” reported by the police and the National Security Service. Ter-Petrosian has dismissed the amendments as unconstitutional.

Kocharian warned the opposition leader, who had served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998, against staging unsanctioned street protests. “I forbade the police from taking any steps [against opposition demonstrators] before the events of March 1, but will now demand that they take strict measures,” he said, adding that he is determined to restore stability in the country before handing over power to Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian on April 9.

Ter-Petrosian says that the authorities themselves instigated the worst street violence in Armenia’s history by breaking up his supporters’ non-stop sit-in in Yerevan’s Liberty Square and then firing at thousands of people who gathered elsewhere in the city center later on March 1.

Western powers have also questioned the official version of events, with the European Union and the Council of Europe urging the authorities in Yerevan to agree to an “independent investigation” of the bloodshed. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, suggested last week that such an inquiry be conducted by a special commission of prominent Armenians “trusted by the public.”

Kocharian insisted, however, that Armenian law-enforcement bodies and the Office of the Prosecutor-General in particular are independent and competent enough to investigate the deadly unrest. He said they can only agree to international experts’ involvement in their ongoing investigation that has resulted in mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists.

Both the EU and the United States have expressed serious concern about the unprecedented government crackdown. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried reiterated those concerns on Thursday, saying that Armenia should "pull itself together and get back on a democratic path."

"We welcome the lifting of the state of emergency, but there are other problems and these need to be addressed,” Fried told RFE/RL. “People who have been arrested for rioting and violent actions, that's one thing. But people who have been arrested for more questionable reasons need to be let go, there needs to be normalization, there needs to be a dialogue with the opposition.”

“Look, this is a troubling situation for all of Armenia's friends,” he said.

Kocharian effectively dismissed such calls, saying that law-enforcement authorities have been quite lenient towards opposition protesters. He argued that some 800 people were detained in connection with the March 1 events and that only just over a hundred of them are currently under arrest pending trial.

Washington threatened last week to “suspend or terminate” $236.5 million in economic assistance which it promised to provide to Armenia under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program. The money was due to be spent on the reconstruction of Armenia’s battered rural roads and irrigation networks.

Kocharian claimed to be untroubled by the possible termination of the five-year aid package, saying that the Armenian government will find other sources of funding for the rural development projects, if need be. “If they make such a decision we will look for other ways of fully implementing that program,” he said. “I have no doubts that we will find those ways.”

Kocharian also downplayed U.S. President George W. Bush’s failure so far to congratulate Sarkisian on his hotly disputed victory in the presidential election. Kocharian said he himself was congratulated by Bush only after being sworn in for a second five-year term in office in April 2003. That, he said, did not prevent Armenia from recording higher rates of economic growth and “cooperating effectively” with the United States in the following years. “So maybe it’s a good sign,” he told journalists jokingly.

In fact, Bush stopped short of congratulating Kocharian on his equally controversial reelection and cited instead serious irregularities that were reported during the Armenian presidential election of February-March 2003. “In a spirit of friendship, I share the disappointment of the OSCE and others who have observed that Armenia missed an opportunity to make an example of a democratic election,” Bush said in an April 2003 letter to Kocharian.

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