Special Forces Detain Students, Target Demonstrators in Yerevan

կառավարություն ցույց

By Skylar Yoder

The alleged arbitrary detention of students and other university members in Yerevan by elite law enforcement in late September has raised attention in Armenia on the treatment of demonstrators by police. The size and frequency of protests in Yerevan have been higher than usual in the last few weeks as people protest the government’s response to the Karabakh crisis.

One subgroup of the police responding to these protests, the Special Forces, also known as the “red berets”, are receiving criticism for their excessive use of force and arbitrary detention of university students in Yerevan. This trend raises concerns that the right of Armenian citizens to peacefully assemble is not being upheld by law enforcement.

On the afternoon of 26 September, approximately 40 red berets arrived at the main building at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and detained eight students who were peacefully standing on the main steps of the university, some with flags and posters in support of Artsakh Armenians. A few of the officers handled the students quite roughly as they moved them into police vans and quickly drove away. One officer stayed behind to speak with what appeared to be staff from the university.

AUA’s Office of Communications declined to comment further and referred CivilNet to their public statement which said: “The American University of Armenia is deeply troubled over the detention of the University’s students on its premises by the “red berets” [special police unit in Armenia].

The video records and testimonials from other students witnessing police activities, suggest that the detained students did not commit any violations of law, including administrative. They were simply standing on the University premises with Armenian flags and posters related to Artsakh and Armenia. We are concerned that such an act against students has the potential to harm the reputation of Armenia as a legal and democratic state.”

CivilNet spoke with one of the detained AUA students, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons. The student said that they were simply trying to enter the university building with flags of the Republic of Artsakh, but the security guard blocked them. Hence, they were standing on the steps as the red berets arrived and detained six people from their group, in addition to two onlookers who were simply in the area and not affiliated with the demonstrators.

The detained student said they had to make several requests to exercise their right to contact someone before the police allowed them all to make one short phone call. Also at the station, the students were provided paperwork which stated they were detained for blocking Ler Kamsar Street and refusing police orders to move, neither of which took place.

The AUA students were held for more than three hours – surpassing the legal limit of time which the police can hold someone without charging them. They were then released without charge.

The press office of the Armenian police told CivilNet in an official letter that the students were detained for failure to comply with a lawful request by a military or police officer under Article 182 of the Administrative Offenses Code.

Despite this incident, the detained student who spoke to CivilNet said they would continue to raise awareness about issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and encourage their peers to support humanitarian efforts for the forcibly displaced persons.

That same week, two people with connections to Yerevan State University (YSU) were detained on campus by the red berets. In response to CivilNet’s request for information, YSU said that the individuals in question were not students of the university and the Armenian Police’s Press Office stated the persons in question were detained on charges of hooliganism.

One of the detained individuals who formerly studied and taught at YSU, ​​Sovak Hacopian, told CivilNet that shortly after their arrival they were detained by the red berets. Hacopian was held for 24 hours, during which he was provided paperwork confirming that criminal proceedings had been initiated against him. This investigation is still in process. Hacopian noted that this experience would not discourage him from engaging in political activism in the future because he is, “a political scientist whose heart aches for the Republic of Armenia.”

These incidents, in addition to the recent detentions of peaceful protestors across Yerevan, have resurfaced long-standing issues with Armenia’s justice system, according to Nina Karapetyants of the Helsinki Association of Human Rights (HAHR).

In addition to the violation of citizens’ rights, Karapetyants noted that the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia – a key oversight mechanism – is not doing enough to document and report the violations.

Additionally, while there are several provisions in place to ensure that human rights are upheld throughout the judicial process, the implementation of these measures has been insufficient, as evidenced by the number of complaints of arbitrary detention, excessive use of force, and even torture during police encounters.

She explained that the failings of the judicial system impact all Armenians because, “as citizens of Armenia, we pay judges, prosecutors, investigators, and police officers once to ensure that they perform normally. They don’t do their job. Then we pay one more time as compensation to [the victim], because their rights were violated”.

One way HAHR is working to address these issues is by educating young Armenians of their rights and what to do if they are detained or need to defend themselves in court.

Karapetyants is confident that change is possible because, “we have a very, very adequate young generation, they know exactly what they want. And at some point we will definitely ensure that we have a sovereign democratic country where people are not detained for no reason, where the police know exactly where they need to use force and where they don’t. And people are ready to fight for the protection of their rights. It is very important.”

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