YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—An Armenian police officer was suspended over the weekend after slapping a participant of a demonstration in Yerevan against a controversial increase in electricity prices in the country.
Lieutenant Artur Vardgesian attacked a 67-year-old man, Hakob Nazarian, on Friday as his riot police unit scuffled with about 100 protesters trying to block traffic through the city’s central Republic Square. Vardgesian struck so hard that he apparently broke a hearing aid in Nazarian’s left ear.
The elderly man and other protesters were shocked and outraged by the violence, charging towards the security forces. Several of them, including Nazarian, were detained and set free a few hours later. Vardgesian, meanwhile, was hastily led away from the scene by his visibly confused colleagues.
Colonel Valery Osipian, a deputy chief of the Yerevan police who personally led the police actions against the protesters, condemned Vardgesian’s behavior, while saying that the angry crowd provoked his subordinate to “lose his cool.”
“I can’t justify what that officer did,” Osipian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “A very bad thing happened.”
General Vladimir Gasparian, the chief of the national police department, announced through a spokesman on Saturday that he has suspended the Vardgesian, pending an “internal inquiry” in the incident. According to the spokesman, Ashot Aharonian, Gasparian also asked Armenian prosecutors to investigate Vardgesian’s actions.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General said on Monday that Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian will likely refer the case to the Special Investigative Service (SIS), an agency dealing with crimes allegedly committed by government and law-enforcement officials. She told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that the SIS will then decide whether or not to press charges against the policeman.
“Rise Up, Armenia!”—a radical anti-government group that organized Friday’s protest—held a small rally outside the national police headquarters in Yerevan on Saturday to demand tough punishment for Vardgesian. Some human rights activists predicted that the policeman will get away with the violence. One of them, Zhanna Aleksanian, argued that law-enforcement officers in Armenia are rarely prosecuted for human rights abuses.
But Vartan Harutiunian, another activist, was more optimistic. Harutiunian said the policeman is likely to be held accountable because his violent action was clearly not ordered or sanctioned by his superiors.
Armenian police officers are thought to have received such orders when they used excessive force during the break-up of a much larger protest against the electricity price hike on June 23. At least one of them was demoted and eight others formally “reprimanded” afterwards. None were fired from their positions.