YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—Law-enforcement authorities pressed on Friday criminal charges against 19 of at least 23 people arrested following Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s visit to Armenia’s Syunik province marred by angry protests.
Most of them were freed by Yerevan courts or the Investigative Committee pending investigation.
The committee asked judges to sanctions pre-trial detentions of eight local government officials and other Syunik residents accused of hooliganism, disruption of public order and/or assault on security officers. It brought the same charges against 11 other men.
The detainees included Mkhitar Zakaryan, the mayor of the towns of Agarak and Meghri making up a single local community. Scores of local residents insulted Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and blamed him for Armenia’s defeat in last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh as he walked through the towns on Wednesday morning.
In a statement announcing the indictments, the Investigative Committee claimed that the “hooligan acts” were organized by Zakaryan for the purpose of hampering Pashinyan’s “movements and meetings with the population.” It said the protesters linked to the mayor not only defied but also pushed and hit law-enforcement officers at the scene.
Zakaryan denied the accusations through his lawyer, Gayane Papoyan. He walked free late on Friday after a Yerevan court refused to remand him in pre-trial custody.
The investigators also indicted Menua Hovsepian, a deputy mayor of another provincial town, Goris. They said Hovsepian “organized and led” local residents who threw eggs at Pashinyan’s motorcade and tried to stop it when it passed through Goris.
Hovsepian, who also denies any wrongdoing, was set free earlier in the day. One of his lawyers, Armen Melkonian, confirmed reports that the vice-mayor claims to have been beaten up by police officers while being transported to the Investigative Committee headquarters in Yerevan.
He said another lawyer has formally complained to prosecutors about the alleged torture.
Melkonian also represents nine other Syunik residents charged with hooliganism. He insisted that they too are innocent.
The arrests condemned by opposition groups began hours after Pashinyan described the protests as a “violation of the law” and told Armenia’s police and National Security Service to respond to them “in a tough manner.”
While condemning the protesters for swearing at Pashinyan, the state human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, accused the prime minister on Thursday of issuing unlawful orders to the law-enforcement agencies.
Pashinyan’s political allies insisted on Friday that the ongoing criminal investigation is not politically motivated or directed by the government.
“The prime minister simply brought the law-enforcers’ attention to the hooligan manifestations, which I think was necessary,” said Lilit Makunts, the parliamentary leader of the ruling My Step bloc.
The elected heads of virtually all major communities in Syunik issued late last year statements demanding Pashinyan’s resignation. The mayors of Meghri, Goris and the industrial town of Kajaran were subsequently prosecuted on separate charges rejected by them as politically motivated.