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Hostage crisis in Armenia. Heroes or Terrorists?

For the past couple of days the situation in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, has been tense. A group of armed men has held four policemen hostage in one of the capital’s police stations.  The building was taken over on July 17th and the perpetrators referred to their actions as a revolution and requested the release of their oppositional associates serving prison terms or under investigation. They have also called for the overthrow of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.

July 22, 2016 - Marina Brutyan - Articles and Commentary

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On the night of the attack, law-enforcement agencies attempted to storm the building and free the hostages. An exchange of shots followed in which one of the policemen was killed. As of July 21st, the militants continue to hold four police officers hostage. They released five others earlier on for various reasons.  

Despite the clear criminal character of these actions, the militants found support among Yerevan’s population. Hundreds of the capital’s inhabitants took to central Yerevan’s streets, calling upon authorities not to assault the police station’s building in order not to harm the militants.

Subsequently, the police forces dispersed the protestors, who had formed barricades from garbage cans. Approximately 20 people were arrested. The police used force during the arrests and those detained pointed out to journalists that the police had struck blows against them. A few hours later, the protesters started throwing stones at law-enforcement representatives, taking their shields away and throwing punches. After the incidents, the city’s hospitals were filled with dozens of wounded.

Who are the militants?

The exact number and membership of the military group is unknown, but it is claimed that it comprises of 20 people. Some of the group’s members are people highly respected in certain circles, as they fought for the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. The group has been called Sasna tsrer (“Daredevils of Sassoun”)  after a medieval epos, describing how the inhabitants of Sassoun (currently located in Turkey) rebelled against the Arab invaders.

Contemporary Yerevan’s “furious Sassouns”  see Armenia as an occupied state and the authorities as occupiers. According to them, the current government usurped power back in 2008 and the time has come to take it down. The group is part of the “Founding Parliament” movement, whose founder, Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran Jirair Sefilian, was arrested a month ago on June 20th. He was accused of illegally possessing firearms and a criminal investigation was launched against him. Interestingly, although other opposition members were detained along with Sefilian, they were soon released. And now these same people, armed with guns, have attacked a police station and requested that the government meet their demands.  

Parents of two of the group members said their sons did not plan to take over the police station; they claim someone has forced them to and that their sons in reality live in Russia and are only temporarily staying in Armenia.  

Who is Jirair Sefilian?

Jirair Sefilian, a Lebanese citizen and the leader of the “furious Sassouns”, arrived to Armenia in 1990 and after a year joined the Armenian side in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. After the ceasefire agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, Sefilian returned to Lebanon, but soon after decided to move back to Armenia.

After the terrorist attack which occurred in the Armenian parliament in 1999, Sefilian took the opposition’s side  and for 17 years since has been criticising the authorities, calling them usurpers. In addition, he often accuses the government of attempting to solve the Karabakh conflict by way of offering parts of Armenia’s territory to Azerbaijan.   

He was first detained for possessing firearms in 2007. When he was found guilty, he  served a one and a half year prison term. In 2015, he was arrested again under the suspicion of preparing mass unrest. The reason he was detained on June 20th was for illegally possessing firearms; during the investigation, it turned out that Sefilian, along with his associates, planned an armed takeover of administration buildings and Yerevan’s TV Tower.

It is worth noting that Jirair Sefilian does not hold Armenian citizenship. On numerous occasions, he applied both to Armenia’s and Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities for naturalisation, but he was either refused or his application did not receive an answer.

Who is holding the hostages?

While at first many people followed the hostage crisis online as it developed, on the evening of July 18th a group of young activists decided to call a meeting in support of the militants and called upon the Armenian authorities not to use force against them. As mentioned before, a few hundred people took to the streets, built barricades and got ready for skirmishes against the police, occasionally throwing stones at them. The official reason for people’s rage was the unconfirmed news that the police has not allowed the attackers to receive food.

This is the fourth summer in a row when the inhabitants of Yerevan take to the capital’s streets and take part in rallies and protests. In 2012 people protested against a construction project in one of the city’s parks, in 2013 against the increase in transport fees and in 2014 against the accession of Armenia to the Eurasian Economic Union. In the summer of 2015 the biggest non-political mass protest in Armenia’s history took place. For 15 days, thousands of people throughout the country protested against an increase in electricity prices. In that last protest, many media outlets rushed to call the events a new “Maidan”, but #Electricyerevan soon demonstrated that the situation was the opposite –there was little rhetoric about politics in the protests.

Those who have gathered in Yerevan’s streets again this year are confident in their victory. They are convinced that as long as they are protesting, the militants who took over the police station will be safe. There are even those who believe that no one will charge them for killing a policeman.  

The 2012 protests, the 2013 ones and the 2015 #Electricyerevan ones were attended by the same people. If one looks at the pictures and video recordings of those actions, one will be able to see the same faces and observe how Armenia’s youth is changing. Some of them have been participating in protests since 2004 (during that year’s presidential elections), but there are also those who were demonstrating as far back as 1988.

Why the authorities keep silent

Let’s not forget that #Electricyerevan ended after the authorities promised that the issue regarding the increase of electricity fees would be solved. But there is one more important fact. The day after the beginning of those protests Armenia’s president expressed readiness to meet with the protestors.  The invitation, however, was rejected.  Two years before, when the youth tried to save the park, the president told Yerevan’s mayor that “it reflects badly on us” and the construction stopped immediately.

Therefore it is surprising that in light of such serious circumstances, such as the killing of a policeman, takeover of a police building, etc. the president has not reacted to the events. Merely on the fifth day of the protests, after the clashes with the police and after hospitals were filled with dozens of injured, Armenia’s Prime Minister, Hovik Abrahamian, gave a speech condemning the events. He assured the country that the authorities have been doing everything in their capacity to peacefully resolve the crisis. It seems that the government has put matters on hold and is not going to storm the police station anytime soon.

Terrorists or simply criminals?

Armenia’s national security service (SNB) launched an investigation in relation to the attack on the police station. However, the SNB has failed to answer what article of Armenia’s criminal code the proceeding should be based on. The dilemma is that the militants’ actions can be classified on the basis of different articles, such as either hostage holding, occupying a building or terrorism. The prosecution, however, can use several articles at the same time.  Given the complexity of the offence, the maximum sentence for the militants could be 15 years of imprisonment.

Armenia’s authorities, however, are reluctant to use the term “terrorism”, as that would cause damage to the country’s reputation. Nonetheless, the national security service sees it differently, and while during the first days of the crisis they used the term “armed group”, the following press-releases spoke about “terrorists” and an “anti-terrorist operation”. Whether this tendency changes remains to be seen.

A little bit of history

There has been a former terrorist act in Armenia’s history which, according to many witnesses, changed the young republic’ path. On October 27th, 1999, a group of armed rebels (led by Nairi Hunanyan) stormed parliament proceedings and shot the Prime Minister, the Parliament’s chairman and two deputies dead. Overall, eight people were killed and dozens injured. The court case lasted for three years. Six of the defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment and one of the attackers received 14 years. All of them were found guilty on the basis of Armenia’s penal code for the crimes of state treason and terrorism.

There have also been other historically well-known Armenian terrorists. Certainly the most famous of all is Sogomon Teylerian, the only member of his family who survived the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide. In 1921 he shot Mehmet Talaat Pasha, one of the key organisers of the mass killings of Armenians, in Berlin. The other well-known terrorist, Stepan Zatikian, organised a series of explosions in Moscow in 1977. Therefore, there has been enough terrorism in Armenia’s history for the authorities to adequately be able to name the ongoing events.

Currently, while Armenia is holding talks with Azerbaijan on possible solutions regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, unwanted extreme statements regarding the country’s internal situation do not help. At least, politicians’ reluctance to comment on these events testifies to that. The Armenian people are categorically against seeing the current militants as criminals, despite the policeman’s death.

The United States’ reaction

The reluctance of Armenia’s authorities to storm the police station building also has other reasons. Armenia has always paid attention to what the United States says. While comments of representatives from other countries regarding Armenia’s internal situation often have been perceived as meddling, the State Department’s declarations are always carefully examined. The deputy head of the US State Department’s press office, Mark Toner, denounced the use of violence by the militants and called upon the government of Armenia to demonstrate self-restraint.

What we can expect

The authorities’ restraint has been maintained, but most probably the Armenian government will soon decide to storm the police building and free the hostages. And this may cause casualties on both sides.

Regardless of what crime the perpetrators may be charged with, the people are ready to see them as martyrs and political prisoners. The political and socioeconomic situation in the country is far from good, and the people are ready to recognise any criminals unrelated to those in power as the regime’s victims. The population wants changes so much that they believe there is no room for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. They also believe that one can only speak with those in power with the language of ultimatums, assuming radical positions. Those who think differently are called traitors.

Therefore, it can be expected that after the hostages are freed and the investigation and most likely trial begins, one will hear on Yerevan’s streets words of support for “the country’s saviours” who “sacrificed themselves for the sake of the nation”.

Marina Brutyan is an Armenian journalist. Between 2006 and 2012 she was REGNUM information agency’s correspondent in Yerevan. In years 2011-2014 she worked as an editor of the Information Bulletin of the Centre for East European Studies, focusing on Armenia. Her articles were published by a number of magazines and websites including Nowa Europa Wschodnia, Lewica 24 and Eastbook. She currently works for a Russian Tamozhnia magazine. 

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