The Armenian authorities must urgently ensure an impartial, independent and thorough investigation into allegations that police used excessive force – including dousing people with water cannon – to disperse a mainly peaceful demonstration before arresting more than 200 protesters on the streets of the capital Yerevan early this morning, Amnesty International said.
Yerevan police said they arrested 237 people after a crowd marched away from round-the-clock protests in a central square towards the presidential headquarters. Since June 19, thousands of people have taken part in the demonstrations against rising electricity prices in Yerevan and elsewhere, including the town of Gyumri where 12 others were arrested.
“For the Armenian authorities to disperse what was up until then a peaceful demonstration is a heavy-handed tactic that must be avoided to protect the right to freedom of expression and assembly. Video footage showing high-powered jets from water cannon flinging peaceful protesters to the ground is a cause for concern,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Program Director at Amnesty International.
“Even if advance warnings were given, jets from water cannon are likely to cause injuries and should never be deployed against peaceful protesters. This equipment is inherently indiscriminate and can affect bystanders.
“It is our understanding that the Armenian authorities are investigating the protesters for ‘hooliganism’, rather than the heavy-handed police response. They must not do this at the expense of an impartial and independent investigation into the police’s alleged use of excessive force, including water cannon, against demonstrators who may have obstructed traffic but were peaceful. Any security forces found responsible of violations must be disciplined or prosecuted.”
According to local activists, yesterday evening hundreds of people left a larger peaceful protest in a central square to march towards the presidential headquarters in Yerevan after the authorities failed to meet their deadline for annulling a price hike in electricity charges scheduled for August 1.
Police insisted the march was unlawful and stopped the protesters at a cordon. The protesters apparently rejected a proposal for a smaller group to meet with and deliver their petition to the president. Instead, they sat on a road and blocked traffic.
An eyewitness told Amnesty International that plainclothes police were beating peaceful protesters.
At around 5:30 a.m., police used water cannon against the demonstrators. A video of the incident shows how water cannon were used to hose down a mostly peaceful crowd. Some protesters attempted to stand up peacefully but the water jets threw them back forcefully into the crowd before police officers, some of them in plain clothes, arrested protesters. In response, some protesters threw water bottles towards the police. There was no evidence of violence until the water cannon were used.
In a statement, police said that stones were thrown and that at least seven protesters and 11 police officials were injured. No serious injuries were reported.
Police and an eyewitness also confirmed that journalists were targeted as well as peaceful protesters. Despite the journalists showing press credentials, police confiscated and damaged video equipment.
“The allegations that police specifically targeted journalists have worrying implications for freedom of expression, and must also be independently investigated,” said Krivosheev.