YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–More than a dozen young opposition activists were beaten up by a larger group of men in downtown Yerevan on Sunday while campaigning for Nikol Pashinian, a jailed opposition leader running for Armenia’s parliament.
The opposition Armenian National Congress said the members of its Hima (Now) youth wing came under verbal and physical attack in the evening as they urged residents of a central Yerevan constituency to vote for Pashinian in the January 10 by-election to the National Assembly. It accused the ruling Republican Party of Armenia of organizing the “bandit assault.”
According to Vladimir Karapetian, a Congress spokesman who was hit in the face during the incident, five of them were seriously injured and taken to a hospital. Among them was Vahagn Gevorgian, a son of Hayk Gevorgian, an editor at Pashinian’s “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily.
Vahagn Gevorgian told RFE/RL that the violence erupted after more than two dozen young men warned Hima activists against entering an apartment building and handing out campaign material to its residents. “But their goal was not to keep us from entering apartment buildings because they were armed with metal bars and other objects to hit us,” he said.
Gevorgian claimed that some of the attackers came out of a campaign office of Pashinian’s main pro-government rival, Ara Simonian, which is allegedly located in the same building. But an aide to Simonian denied that, saying that the latter has no offices there.
Simonian represents the National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian, a once influential opposition group that now supports President Serzh Sarkisian.
In a statement issued on Monday, the Armenian National Congress charged that the violence was orchestrated by the ruling party and Yerevan’s Republican Mayor Gagik Beglarian in particular. Levon Zurabian, a leading member of the opposition alliance, said the Republican Party has mobilized its “vote rigging and bullying machine” to ensure Simonian’s victory in the poll.
“All Republican structures are working for him,” Zurabian told journalists. “That is being regarded by the authorities as the only way to prevent Nikol Pashinian’s victory.”
The HHK did not immediately react to the allegations. Speaking at a news conference before the HAK statement, the presidential party’s chief spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, condemned the attack. “Any violation of citizens’ rights is inadmissible, whether they are an opposition politician, a pro-government politician or not engaging in politics,” he said. “I think law-enforcement authorities must do something about this.”
Gevorgian and other Hima activists were confronted by plainclothes officers as they handed out opposition leaflets ahead of just about every major rally held by the HAK this year. Three of those activists and at least one police officer required hospitalization after one such incident reported in early July. The HAK accused the police of deliberately provoking such clashes to lower attendance at its anti-government protests suspended in September.
Gevorgian was also briefly detained by the police in April during the break-up of daily HAK gatherings in the city’s Northern Avenue. A Yerevan court sentenced him to one year in prison in September for allegedly assaulting a policeman during the incident. The 18-year-old avoided imprisonment because of a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities in June.
Armen Khachatrian, another HAK representative, told RFE/RL that police officers were unusually quick to visit and question the hospitalized youths in the Surp Grigor Lusavorich Hospital on Sunday evening. Khachatrian said the officers were led by the chief of criminal investigations at the police department of Yerevan’s central administrative district. The police said on Monday they have launched a criminal investigation into the attack.
Pashinian is seeking a parliament seat despite facing up to eight years in prison for his role in the March 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan. The judge presiding over his ongoing trial is scheduled to hand down a ruling on January 19.