There’s clear evidence police viscously beat largely peaceful protesters involved in a July 2016 demonstration in Armenia, and assaulted journalists reporting on it. But two years later, not only has no official been held criminally accountable, the investigation into the incident has now been shelved.
In late September, authorities suspended their criminal investigation into the violence against protesters and journalists, citing an inability to identify the officials responsible. This means at least a delay in justice – possibly indefinitely.
Human Rights Watch documented heavy-handed response to the protests that erupted after armed men from a radical opposition group, Founding Parliament, violently seized a police station in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, on July 17, 2016.
On July 29, police fired stun grenades into the crowds that had gathered in the neighborhood of the seized police station, causing burns and fragmentation wounds on some demonstrators and journalists. Police and men in civilian clothes, acting with them, also beat journalists and protesters using wooden clubs and iron bars, damaging or seizing journalists’ equipment in the process. Police also detained many protesters, including a protest leader, Andreas Ghukasyan, beating him extensively.
Lack of accountability for law enforcement abuse has been a persistent problem in Armenia – this was no exception. In August 2016, authorities fired the Yerevan police chief for “failing to prevent violent attacks on protesters and journalists,” and suspended or reprimanded at least 17 other officials. But the two-year-long investigation has been one-sided, resulting in convictions of at least 21 civilians. Only in July did authorities bring charges against a policeman for abuse of office and sent the case to the court, where it is still pending.
Coincidentally, days after the authorities suspended the investigation, the European Court of Human Rights issued a judgment against Armenia on a case concerning 2008 protests over the outcome of Armenia’s presidential election. The Court found authorities failed to investigate allegations of police violence, instead prosecuting only protesters. This should signal to the authorities that other instances of police violence against peaceful protesters might also come under further scrutiny.
One of the many grievances that brought tens of thousands of people in Armenia to the streets this spring, which ultimately ushered in a new government, included public distrust of the justice system. Armenia’s new leadership should prioritize accountability for the past abuses by law enforcement as an essential element for rebuilding that trust.