The Role of Police in Armenia – Giulia Ceccarini, Italy

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Summer 2016: the hunger for protest and fear of the reaction. It’s the 17th of July and the temperature doesn’t get higher than 20 degrees at 1000 meters above the sea level in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Citizens go about their daily lives, mostly unaware that such a critical event is going to happen in few hours – shaping, once again, the atmosphere of their country.

A group of rebels, who call themselves Daredevils of Sasun – after an epic poem telling the story of a young man overtaking heroic actions against the evil and capturing the aspirations of a nation – breaks into a police station in the capital and takes nine hostages. They want to raise their voice against corruption in the Armenian government somehow, and debatable though their method was, they did so. This unrest has its roots in the arrest of opposition leader Jirair Sefilian, who was arrested in 2006 and 2008 for suspicion of organizing a coup, but released shortly afterwards. The armed group had asked for his release as well as the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan.

That day (17/07) one policeman was killed. TV reports do not mention the takeover of the police station and citizens around the craggy Armenian plateaus have no clue of what is happening in the distant capital.

18/07: The hostages are still being held under rebellious fury as the takeover progresses.

19/07: Finally, the population is informed and intervenes. About 1500 anti-government protesters ask for a peaceful resolution of the event. However, there are also those who take advantage of the political turmoil – supporters of the opposition party throwing stones at the policemen standing in front of the police station.

20/07: Tension grows but the hostage takers refuse to surrender.

25/07: the Yerevan community joins protests against the political instability in the country, marching towards Republic Square, asking bystanders to join.

28/07: the protest reaches an unbelievable number. More than 20.000 people protesting. Hostages are still being held.

The situation is unbearable for the Government that still hasn’t made its voice heard: it is time to react. Policemen start firing stun and flash grenades on the crowd – protesters and journalists are incapacitated: 14 of them are injured and stripped of their equipment. Plainclothes police attack them with metal rods, and enter neighbouring homes. Around 60 people are injured and 31 detained, all of them left without food and water once in prison. Activists such as Alexander Yenikomshian, Armen Martirosyan, Andrias Ghukasyan, David Sanasaryan are arrested, as well as the rock-band player Yeghishe Petrosyan.

But the crowd wouldn’t give up, once they caught the international eye: the brutality of the policemen was neither just nor democratic in their eyes, and the hostage takers wouldn’t surrender.

EU representative Federica Mogherini asks for an immediate release of the hostages and warns the government against their excessive use of violence. She also cites civil rights: “Conflicts need to be resolved through political dialogue with a respect for democracy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms.” Human Rights Watch also spoke out against the police.

31/07: the crisis ends after police threaten to storm the building. The rebels are arrested and still in prison. 

Once again an episode of fear of the authority: uniform seems to give people power and   privilege, granting them a respect that they would lack without it. Let us remember their ideal role: maintaining the public order and not having “carte blanche to use violence against people gathered to peacefully express their views”.

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