Armed group storms police station in Yerevan, demands release of political prisoners

Armed group storms police station in Yerevan, demands release of political prisoners
Armenia's capital Yerevan
By bne IntelliNews July 17, 2016

One police officer was killed and at least four wounded as a group of armed men seized a police station in Armenia’s capital Yerevan at dawn on July 17 demanding the release of political prisoners and the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan. Newspaper Civilnet identified the group as Sasna Dzres (the Daredevils of Sassoun), who were members of the Freedom Fighters Union, a group of volunteers that was founded in April to fight for Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that Armenia disputes with neighbouring Azerbijan.

The Daredevils reportedly entered the Erebuni police station by driving a vehicle through the door and took eight police officers hostage. They later released one who had hypertension when his condition worsened, but took hostage the deputy chief of Yerevan police, Valery Osipyan, when the latter went to the station for negotiations.

The attackers’ main demand was the release of opposition leader Jiray Sefilian, whom the authorities have accused of plotting civil unrest. They also demanded the release of all political prisoners, the resignation of Sargsyan and the setting up of a temporary committee to govern the country. The group maintained communication with the media during the entire siege, and posted an amateur video calling on Armenians to protest in the streets.

“Dear friends, citizens, Armenian nation, it has begun, we are doing this for you, we have resorted to this step for you. Go out to the streets! We demand that all political prisoners be set free, Jirayr Sefilian, Gevorg Safaryan, Valodia Avedisyan, Shant Haroutynyan and friends. Everyone, with no exception. And with the precondition that they be brought here. Armenian people, it depends on you… go out to the street. We are a single unit and we cannot reach our goal alone. There is no other way; we had to resort to this step. Our request is that you not leave us alone in this matter for which we are putting our lives at stake” the video urged.

But their calls were not heeded as the fringe group does not enjoy popular support, and the intended uprising quickly turned into a mere hostage standoff. The National Security Service (NSS) accused the attackers of spreading false rumors on the internet about a rebellion and the seizure of other buildings. “The NSS declares that there are no grounds for this information... Talks are being held with the armed group to ensure their peaceful surrender,” the agency said in a statement.

Suggestions that an armed uprising was underway stoked speculation that the attackers might have drawn inspiration from an unsuccessful coup attempt in neighbouring Turkey.

A military commander and politician, Sefilian has been critical of Sargsyan's management of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Following a four-day war with Baku in April, Azerbaijani soldiers seized a stretch of some 20km in width in the region. As a result of the conflict, several high-ranking Armenian military and government officials were sacked in June, and self-styled vigilante groups like the Daredevils emerged. A veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Sefilian has been arrested three times, most recently in June 2016 over allegations that he was planning to campaign against the idea of making territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. Two weeks before his arrest, he announced plans to set up a new opposition movement called the National Resistance Committee with the intention of toppling the government “with the help of the people and of the army”.

In a bloody war in the early 1990s, Armenia occupied not just Nagorno-Karabakh, but also seven surrounding territories that, unlike the breakaway region, were populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Russia has long used the conflict to divide and empire in the Caucasus. It initially supported Armenia in the war with Azerbaijan but in the recent years has begun to mend its ties with oil-rich Baku, selling it some $4bn worth of armament. Some of the armament was used against ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh during the April war, prompting anti-Russian protests in Yerevan.

Civilnet reports that opposition MP Nigol Pashinyan was also negotiating with the attackers, and that the situation in Armenia was tense on July 17, with several roads closed and heavy police presence. “Roads leading to Yerevan have been blocked from all directions,” the source said. Around Yerevan, people believed to be Sefilian symphathisers were reportedly “arrested without grounds” and police beat and arrested some 20 people in the central Freedom Square.

Facebook was reportedly down on July 17, and the government was shutting down websites of media outlets that were covering the events.

Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty's Armenian service reported that the attackers belong to the Founding Parliament opposition group, which is led by Sefilian, and that the group had tried to overthrow the government in late 2015 as well, but failed due to the poor attendance at the rallies it had organised.

A source from an Armenian TV station told bne IntelliNews that the attempted coup had been perpetrated by high ranking police officials, and that the perpetrators were also the ones who blocked social networks in the country. The Sargsyan administration reportedly responded by threatening to arrest anyone who was out on the streets. There are rumours that hundreds of people have been arrested.

According to Richard Giragosian, Director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre, is was obvious from the early hours that the situation was a hostage standoff rather than a coup because of the lack of popular support for the movement. Deeming the crisis to be “radical and amateur”, Giragosian nevertheless believes that there are more serious underpinnings to it, which include lack of accountability on behalf of the government, entrenched corruption and falsified elections.

"The careless, reckless and criminal acts of the gunmen, no matter what their self-professed political goals may be, pose a serious blow to civil liberties in Armenia, and offer a tempting pretext for bolstering a trend of authoritarianism in Armenia, especially as this criminal act is a sign of desperation and weakness, and confirmation of the danger and risk from such marginal, fringe but radical groups," he wrote in an email commentary on July 18, adding that he believed that the incident would be a setback to democratisation and reform. 

Giragosian expects the police to launch a pre-dawn assault in order to take back the police station and subdue the gunmen. "Given the serious amount of heavy weapons seized by the gunmen when they broke into the police station's arsenal, the assault will be deadly, with a high probability of severe fatalities, especially as they were already armed with AK-47s and are outfitted with body armor," he added. Meanwhile, the police crackdown, which has already targeted many Armenians with no involvement in the incident, was likely continue and even escalate, exacerbated by the Armenian authorities' sense of paranoia and fear. 

Early in the evening hours of July 17, Sargsyan convened an emergency meeting to discuss the incident and reassured Armenians that the situation was under control, according to Arka news agency. The source added that four police officers were wounded in the exchange of fire, and two of them were in critical condition.