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Regional and international press freedom groups are demanding that the Armenian government immediately lift the state of emergency that bans all demonstrations and independent news reports, imposed after police used excessive force to break up opposition protests in the capital.

According to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF), Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House, riot police in Yerevan used tear gas, water cannons, truncheons and electric prods and fired shots in the air to disperse a rally on 1 March. The demonstrators were gathered for an 11th day of protest against the declared presidential election results, which they allege to be rigged.

Eight people were killed and more than 100 injured in the clashes that broke out after security forces cleared an opposition protest camp from the city centre on Saturday.

Following the crackdown, outgoing President Robert Kocharian declared a state of emergency in the capital until 20 March that bans public gatherings and requires news reports on national politics to include only official information.

According to Human Rights Watch, police surrounded and sealed off the opposition news agency A1+ on 1 March, preventing its employees from entering or leaving the building.

In one case, journalist Gagig Shanshan was arrested and held in a local police station without access to his lawyer, says Human Rights Watch. Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition challenger, was effectively under house arrest as police cordoned off his home. At least six opposition leaders were detained for organising illegal demonstrations, says Human Rights Watch.

Internet and satellite reception have been cut in Yerevan, and several independent and opposition news websites have been blocked, including websites of A1+ and the independent newspapers "Aravot" ("Morning") and "Aikakan Zhamanak" ("Armenian Time"), says CPJ. The Armenian service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was also blocked.

In protest against the restrictions, some major Armenian newspapers did not publish editions on 4 March, says the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

"The state of emergency should not be used by the government to take away the public's right to news from diverse sources. Pluralistic reporting helps ensure transparency of governmental action even in dire times," says the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti.

With reports that demonstrators have gone missing, relatives have little access to information about their family members with the media blackout, Human Rights Watch says. "Armenian authorities should promptly make the casualty list public, as well as the names of those arrested and places of detention. The authorities should also not use the state of emergency to unnecessarily restrict freedom of information," says Human Rights Watch.

Official results gave Serzh Sarkisian 53 percent of the vote, with Ter-Petrosian, a former president, getting 21.5 percent.

International observers judged the election in the ex-Soviet Caucasus republic to be "mostly in line with international commitments." But GDF and Human Rights Watch documented several cases of assaults on election observers and journalists at polling stations on election day. The opposition says the poll was rigged in favour of Sarkisian, a close ally of Kocharian. Kocharian is barred constitutionally from seeking a third term in office.

BBC correspondents say the unrest has risked destabilising a key Russian ally, which lies between the energy-rich Caspian Sea and the markets of Europe.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch:
- Human Rights Watch Armenia page:
- CPJ:
- Freedom House:
- GDF:
- BBC:
(Photo courtesy of AFP)

(4 March 2008)

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