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IPHR Calls on Armenian Authorities to Investigate Unlawful Police Conduct During July Protests

In light of the failure of the Armenian authorities to bring any suspects to justice following the excessive use of force by police at the Electric Yerevan protests in June 2015, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) is seriously concerned that those responsible for the use of excessive force in the July 2016 demonstrations may also escape justice, according to the “Beaten, Burnt and betrayed: Armenians Awaiting Accountability for Police Violence” report published by the IPHR late last week. 

The IPHR deployed a monitoring mission to Yerevan on 28 July to 1 August 2016 to study allegations of the use of disproportionate and excessive force by Armenian authorities during the demonstrations that took place in Yerevan from 17 July to 30 July 2016. The protests in the Armenian capital spiked after a group of armed men calling themselves “Sasna  Tsrer” (“Daredevils of Sasun”) seized the Police Patrol Service (PPS) station located Yerevan's southern Erebuni district on 17, killing police Colonel Artur Vanoyan, wounding and taking hostage several other police officers. The group was demanding the release of the imprisoned leader of the Founding Parliament opposition movement Jirair Sefilyan and the resignation of Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan.

The monitors interviewed and recorded testimony from victims, witnesses, lawyers, journalists and NGO leaders who were personally affected by the events; they also examined witness statements, photo and video material, physical evidence and medical documents provided by victims, in order to assess whether the use of force by police officers was proportionate were able to establish that police used indiscriminate force since they did not only target violent, but also peaceful protesters.

“The Armenian Law 'On Police' (Article 29) specifies the conditions for deploying non-lethal weapons. It clearly stipulates that before using force, police officers should warn protesters. However, neither on 20 nor 29 July was adequate warning given by police officers to protesters. 

“On 29 July, police officers had asked protesters to leave Khorenatsi Street within 10 minutes, but began using weapons such as stun grenades, gas grenades, truncheons, wooden sticks and metal bars immediately after making the announcement. 

“[…] Of the 11 victims who testified to the monitors about the events of the night of 29 to 30 July, seven were wounded by stun-grenades and/or beaten.

“[…] Two interviewees also told that they had observed police officers storming the properties of local residents, carrying out searches of residents and beating some inhabitants,” the report said, adding that with regard to the 29 July demonstration, the monitors were able to establish that the use of force by police was excessive and disproportionate causing injuries to dozens of protesters and bystanders.

According to statements made by those detained in connection with the July 2016 demonstrations, the authors went on, procedural rights were often violated during detention and arrest. Police officers detained many peaceful protesters on Azatutyun Square and near Khorenatsi Street, telling nearby journalists that they were holding people simply for identity checks. However, police officers made no attempt to check identity documents on the spot. In many cases, when asked the reason for detention, police officers replied: “You know full well”, or “You will find out later.” 

Victims testified that police officers beat them severely while detaining them. Arnas Ter-Avetikyants, a demonstrator who was detained on 29 July on Khorenatsi Street, is cited by the report as saying: “Two people caught my hands. They tried to pull me but failed. So they hit me and ran behind the barricade of police officers. Once behind the police line they started beating me. They beat me on the stomach and back. As I have cancer, I thought that they could hurt me seriously if I didn’t tell them that I have health problems. I told them but they did not care. After beating me some more, they put me into a little UAZ car, with many other demonstrators in it. As I got into the car I saw a man covered in blood. There were plain clothed policemen who were beating the people who had been detained”. 

Vardges Gaspari, a protester who was detained on 17 July, testified: “I was alone in the [police] compound, but the door was open. So from time to time I shouted ‘Serzhik is a martaspan (murderer), he is bad’. Someone in civilian clothes came in, I was on the ground, he put his shoe on my face and mouth and started pressing down. He asked: ‘How can you protest now’? I continued, shaking my head, and tried to scream ‘Serzhik is a murderer’, he saw he couldn’t stop me and started to kick me in the head. He did it many times – I don’t know how many, before he went away”.

Artur Minasyan, a protester who was detained on 18 July, stated: “Two police officers took me to a police car. Then they brought my friend David and another person to the same car. After closing the car door, they forced us to lie down on the floor, and one of the police officers put his knee on my back squashing my hands, while another police officer started beating and insulting me. They were punching and kicking me. We were being beaten and tortured for approximately 15-20 minutes, after which one of the police officers ordered us to kiss and suck their shoes. When we reached the place [later Artur learned that it was Davtashen Military Police Station], we heard an officer ordering them to pee on us.”

According to witness statements and information from lawyers which were obtained by the monitors, the majority of detainees were held in the police station for from five to 15 hours, and in some cases as long as 24 hours. None of those interviewed were offered food whilst in detention. Some were given water and allowed to use the toilet. 

Many of those detained reported they were not given any official documents about their detention. Police officers simply let them leave the detention facilities or took them by car and let them out somewhere in Yerevan. There were cases where the detainees were made to sign detention records without being properly informed of their rights. Many victims who had been beaten during detention or hurt by stun grenades told the monitors that police officers had asked them to sign protocols as witnesses, rather than victims.

“Based on testimonies gathered by the monitoring team, it appears that in many cases the Armenian police failed to respect legal procedural guarantees during the detention of demonstrators. Several people interviewed claimed to have been physically and/or verbally abused after being placed in detention in police stations, and several also reported being ill-treated. Such allegations require prompt and independent investigation,” the authors said.

On the basis of the findings of this report, the IPHR recommends that the Armenian authorities take immediate steps to ensure accountability and justice for the human rights violations documented during the events of 17 July to 30 July 2016. 

“The Armenian authorities should: 

• Undertake prompt, thorough, impartial and independent investigations into all allegations of unlawful conduct by law enforcement officials in connection with the dispersal of the protest in Yerevan on 20 July and 29 July 2016. 

• Investigations should be carried out with respect to all of the allegations, ensuring a careful examination of the circumstances of each individual case where violations are alleged, including those documented in this report.”