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Stunned by grenades and beatings

Unidentified men and police punch, kick and use wooden clubs to beat journalists and protesters, as protests in Armenia reach their third week.

Anti-government protesters march through a street in Yerevan, Armenia, 30 July 2016
Anti-government protesters march through a street in Yerevan, Armenia, 30 July 2016

Karo Sahakyan/PAN Photo via AP

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 1 August 2016.

Armenian police used excessive force against peaceful protesters on July 29, 2016 and assaulted journalists reporting on the demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said today. Police used stun grenades, which wounded dozens of demonstrators and some journalists, some severely. The police also beat journalists and protesters and detained dozens of people.

Armenian authorities have opened an investigation into police actions on July 29.

“Armenia's investigation of the police assaults on demonstrators on July 29 should be swift and thorough,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “While the police have an obligation to maintain public order, they do not have carte blanche to use violence against people gathered to peacefully express their views.”

Protests have been ongoing in Armenia since July 17, when armed men from a radical opposition group seized a police station in Yerevan's Erebuni district, killing one policeman and taking several hostages, demanding political concessions from the government. Before the gunmen surrendered on July 31, public support for them grew into a wide protest movement in Yerevan.

While police and protesters have scuffled several times, on the night of July 29 police used excessive and disproportionate force to disperse a peaceful crowd. Other protests took place without incident or police interference.

Human Rights Watch spoke with victims and witnesses of the violence. Several said that at about 11 p.m., police rapidly fired numerous rocket-projected stun grenades and threw hand-held stun grenades into the peaceful crowds near the police station in the Erebuni district. When the grenades landed, they emitted thick smoke and a loud sound, stunning many people for several seconds. The grenades then exploded, causing first- and second-degree burns and fragmentation wounds on the legs of people standing nearby.

Human Rights Watch interviewed several injured journalists and protesters in a Yerevan hospital. “Suren,” 25, whose name was changed for his protection, had just joined the protest when a stun grenade landed at his feet. He was briefly blinded by thick smoke and felt severe pain in his head. As he struggled to flee, he saw that his pant legs were almost entirely burned and his legs were covered in blood. Suren has 30 lacerations and first- and second-degree burns covering both legs. Doctors removed five plastic fragments from the stun grenade from his legs. He was not able to walk normally at the time of the interview.

One doctor Human Rights Watch interviewed said he treated a young man whose eye had been hit by stun grenade fragments. The eye had to be removed. The doctor also reported seeing 20 to 25 victims with burns and fragmentation wounds, apparently caused by the stun grenades.

Journalists and protesters said that although police told protest leaders that the crowd had to disperse, the police did not make any meaningful effort to warn the crowds to disperse or about their plans to use force. Police did not use other means of crowd control before resorting to stun grenades.

In a statement on July 30, the Armenian police alleged that protesters attempted to break through a police cordon established to keep people away from the police station and that the police actions were necessary. According to the authorities, they have opened an investigation into the organization of and participation in mass public disorder, and have arrested 23 people.

Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that the crowd was not attempting to cross the cordon when police started launching the stun grenades. Video footage of the events reviewed by Human Rights Watch supports the witness accounts.

While police could legitimately seek to prevent protesters from getting too close to the police station, they were still bound to uphold human rights and respect standards on the use of force, Human Rights Watch said.

Security forces should not fire stun grenades directly into crowds. Although the grenades are technically non-lethal, their fragmentation can foreseeably cause serious injuries in an indiscriminate manner, exposing non-violent protesters and on-lookers to grave harm. Polystyrene in some stun grenades will melt in the heat created when they are discharged, and cause serious burn wounds. Human Rights Watch documented that many protesters had first- and second-degree burns.

Police had told several journalists to move away from the main crowd, claiming it was necessary for their safety. Most journalists complied, but were still injured by the exploding stun grenades. Journalists said police fired several stun grenades in their direction. Video footage supports these accounts.

Immediately after firing and throwing the stun grenades into the crowd, uniformed police and unidentified people in civilian clothes acting with them, ran toward the protesters, detaining many.

Police and the unidentified men also punched, kicked, and used wooden clubs to beat some journalists and protesters, and damaged or seized journalists' equipment. Marut Vanyan, a cameraman for the Lragir.am news site, told Human Rights Watch that two unidentified men grabbed him by the arms and dragged him behind the police line, swearing at him and shouting, “What were you filming?” A group of eight to ten unidentified men then beat Vanyan with wooden clubs in the arms, back, and leg and kicked him in the stomach as he tried to protect his head with his backpack.

Vanyan showed the attackers his press badge and repeatedly told them that he is a journalist, but they did not respond. He has not seen his video camera or other equipment since the attack. Vanyan had been covering the protests since they began on July 17 without incident. “I had filmed a lot of police actions before,” he said. “I had the sense that night it would be the same: that because we are journalists we would be protected. But that night [July 29] felt like a deliberate attack on journalists.”

“Police should not interfere with the legitimate work of journalists, let alone attack and punish them for doing their jobs,” Gogia said.

Governments are obligated to respect basic human rights standards on the use of force in police operations, including in dispersing both legal and illegal demonstrations. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require police to use nonviolent means, such as demands to vacate an area, before resorting to force and firearms. Police should adhere to a principle of measured escalation of force. When using force, law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint and act proportionately to the threat posed, and seek to minimize damage and injury.

The European Court of Human Rights has also found that governments should show a high tolerance for peaceful assembly, even assemblies that the authorities deem unsanctioned or illegal.

Physical assaults, including punching, kicking, or using wooden truncheons on unarmed demonstrators and journalists are never a legitimate use of force and violate the prohibition against torture and inhuman treatment.

Armenia's Special Investigative Service opened an investigation into police actions on the night of July 29. Police also announced an internal investigation.

The authorities should ensure any investigation is thorough and effective and leads to holding accountable those responsible for the police violence, including those who gave the orders, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should provide a full account of all munitions fired and the role of the men in civilian clothing acting with police. The authorities should also fully review all laws, regulations, and guidelines on the use of force and response by law enforcement to public order concerns, to ensure that the framework and relevant training comply with human rights standards. Law enforcement officers should always wear clear identification while on duty, as this is essential to accountability.

“If protests in Yerevan continue, police should not use excessive force against peaceful demonstrations,” Gogia said. “Violence against peaceful protestors and journalists is never justified.”

For detailed accounts, please continue reading on hrw.org.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
What other IFEX members are saying
  • Armenia: RSF calls for end to impunity for police violence against journalists

    “Clearly identified journalists carrying cameras were deliberately targeted,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Some continued to be beaten after promising to stop filming. Such behaviour must be punished so that it does not recur. We urge the authorities to end the impunity for police violence against journalists and to give the police clear instructions not to do it again.”

  • Armed standoff in Armenia: Why it happened and what it could mean

    The government response, limited to condemning the men as terrorists and suppressing their supporters, has failed to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that the Armenian public sympathizes with many of the complaints and criticisms at the heart of the takeover.



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