Since Friday, protests have swept Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, on news that the country’s outgoing president – who has served the maximum two terms – plans to become prime minister. Many Armenians believe this would amount to a de facto third term as president.
Parliament is set to vote for prime minster tomorrow, and the president, Serzh Sargsyan, is the ruling party’s candidate.
The demonstrations in Yerevan – attracting thousands of protesters – have been led by prominent opposition parliament member Nikol Pashinian. He called on people to engage in civil disobedience, including by forming a human chain around parliament to prevent members from entering and voting. Rallies took place throughout the weekend. This morning, thousands of people started blocking major streets and bridges.
The movement’s leaders have urged protesters to be peaceful, and most of the rallies across the city have been. But protesters and police briefly clashed this afternoon, when demonstrators broke through a police barrier near the parliament building. Police allegedly used stun grenades. As a result of clashes, forty protesters and six policemen were taken to the hospital.
One media report said police detained four protesters who were blocking a road, releasing them about two hours later without charge, and protesters who held a sit-in on a road were assaulted by frustrated motorists and men in black t-shirts. Police were slow to intervene. At least one injured protester was reportedly taken to the hospital and discharged this evening.
As I write this, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people are protesting on Baghramian Street near the parliament building. They’re separated from a police cordon by several meters and barbed wire fence. So far police have refrained from breaking up the crowd, but issued warnings calling on the crowd to disperse. The situation is tense.
I can’t help remembering demonstrations in Yerevan from the past few years, when police used excessive force to break up largely peaceful crowds. In June 2015, police beat up and used water cannons against people protesting electricity price hikes. I personally knew several people who were injured. In July 2016, police beat and used stun grenades against largely peaceful protesters, wounding dozens. Yet no police have been held criminally accountable.
Armenia’s authorities should protect people’s right to peaceful assembly. Any police response needs to be proportionate and in line with United Nations law enforcement standards. It is never too late for Armenia’s police to turn around their poor record on using excessive force.