Law-enforcement authorities detained on Thursday several local government officials and other residents of Armenia’s Syunik province where Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan faced angry protests during an unexpected visit on Wednesday.
The state human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, suggested that at least two of them were mistreated in custody and accused Pashinyan of issuing illegal orders to investigators.
The detainees included Mkhitar Zakaryan, the mayor of the towns of Agarak and Meghri making up a single local community.
Scores of angry local residents insulted Pashinyan and blamed him for Armenia’s defeat in last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh as he walked through the towns on Thursday morning. The prime minister was jeered by a group of other protesters when he headed to Syunik’s capital Kapan later in the day.
Meeting with senior law-enforcement officers there, Pashinyan described the protests as a “violation of the law” and demanded “tough” reactions to them from the Armenian police and National Security Service (NSS). His press secretary claimed that the protests were organized by his political foes.
Tatoyan condemned the protesters for swearing at Pashinyan. But the ombudsman also deplored Pashinyan’s “unacceptable” remarks made during the Kapan meeting, saying that government officials have no right to order criminal investigations into “concrete individuals.”
Zakaryan, the Meghri and Agarak mayor, was arrested after being taken to Yerevan early in the morning. His lawyer, Gayane Papoyan, said Armenia’s Investigative Committee suspects him of organizing the protests accompanied by what it regards as “hooliganism.”
“They can’t explain the basis of their suspicion,” Papoyan told reporters. She denied her client’s involvement in the protests.
The Investigative Committee did not comment on Zakaryan’s arrest or say who else was taken into custody.
Zakaryan and the elected heads of virtually all other Syunik communities demanded Pashinyan’s resignation late last year.
Another detainee, Menua Hovsepyan, is a deputy mayor of Goris, another Syunik town which Pashinyan briefly visited on Wednesday. His legal status remained unclear as of Thursday evening.
A representative of Tatoyan’s office was allowed to talk to Hovsepian at a police station in Yerevan. In a statement, the ombudsman said Hovsepian claimed to have been beaten up and verbally abused by police officers. He said he will send an “appropriate letter” to the Office of the Prosecutor-General.
Tatoyan also decried the treatment of another Syunik detainee, Ararat Aghabekyan. Lawyer Papoyan publicized a mobile phone video of law-enforcement officers bringing him to the Investigative Committee headquarters in Yerevan. It showed a handcuffed and visibly ill Aghabekyan imploring them to call an ambulance and hospitalize him.
Aghabekyan is a well-known resident of the Syunik village of Shurnukh run by his brother Hakob Arshakyan. The latter said that police officers broke into his home overnight and took him away without any explanation.
“He didn’t participate in the protests. The guy was sick and lay in bed for the last ten days,” Arshakyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Tatoyan’s office also received reports of several other arrests made in Syunik. The ombudsman said that among these detainees are a member of Goris’s municipal council and a village administration chief.
Vahe Hakobyan, a Syunik-linked businessman and politician critical of the Armenian government, claimed that the authorities made more than two dozen “illegal” arrests in response to the anti-Pashinyan protests.
A deputy chief of the national police, Armen Fidanyan, insisted, however, that only “two or three” men were taken in for interrogation. Fidanyan denied that the investigation is illegally directed by Pashinyan.
Armen Khachatryan, a pro-government lawmaker who accompanied the prime minister on the trip to Syunik, also denied any political persecution. “There is no question that what happened was hooliganism,” he said.
Opposition groups claimed the opposite, praising the Syunik protesters and condemning the arrests.
Hundreds of opposition supporters rallied outside the prosecutors’ headquarters in Yerevan on Thursday evening to demand the immediate release of all detainees. They clashed with riot police guarding the building.
Syunik borders districts southwest of Karabakh which were mostly recaptured by Azerbaijan during the autumn war. As a result of a Russian-brokered ceasefire that stopped the war on November 10, Armenian army units and local militias completed in December their withdrawal from parts of those districts close to Kapan and other local communities.
Shurnukh was effectively divided into two parts as a result of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border delimitation that left many Syunik residents seriously concerned about their security.
The small village was the first stop of Pashinyan’s unannounced regional tour which began late on Tuesday. The premier went into one or two Shurnukh houses and briefly talked to their residents. One of them said afterwards she told Pashinyan that he is not welcome in her home.
Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosian on Thursday accused Pashinyan of breaking into the woman’s home without permission, saying that was “the most disgusting moment of Pashinyan’s Syunik expedition.”
“I would not like to see my country’s prime minister in a more humiliating situation,” Ter-Petrosian said in a short statement posted on ilur.am.