The biggest political event of the passing 2016 in Armenia undoubtedly was the takeover by a group of gunmen of a large police compound in downtown Yerevan in July. The events that followed revealed amply the scale and the severity of economic, social, and national security-related problems facing the Armenian society. While we have covered the events and their aftermath substantially since July, it is only natural for us to end the year with a set of questions and answers about what took place during those two critical weeks for Armenia’s modern history.
Question: Who were the members of the armed group and why did they choose the particular timing and method to express their grievances?
Answer: On July 17, 2016 an armed group of activists and former freedom fighters calling themselves Sasna Tsrer, the “Daredevils of Sassoon”—echoing a medieval Armenian folk story—took over a large police compound in Yerevan. Their declared objective was to stop Armenia from an imminent economic and demographic demise and prevent a future Russia-brokered defeatist deal in Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabagh Republic).
Citing the history of fraudulent elections in Armenia, police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, widespread corruption in all three branches of the government, and existence of political prisoners, the gunmen indicated that they were left without options to channel dissatisfaction with the handling of the country’s affairs and achieve a meaningful change in the country’s governance.
Q: What were the main demands of the group?
A: The group demanded:
- Release of political prisoners;
- Resignation of Serge Sargsyan, to follow by formation of a government of national unity.
The use of force by the Daredevils was not a mechanism for overthrowing Sargsyan per se, but instead was intended to spark a nationwide protest as a way of replacing his regime.
The public protest rallies that followed were peaceful. However, on July 29, during the protest action in Sari Tagh district of Yerevan (in close proximity to the occupied police compound), plain-clothed police brigades and connected criminal thugs instigated violence, by using metal bars, wooden clubs, tear gas, and stun grenades and forcing civilians to run for safety. Dozens of protesters were wounded, including some with severe burns from the use of grenades.
Q: Were there any casualties and hostages taken during the standoff?
A: Upon the takeover of the base, the group held hostage eight police officers, including a general. During the attack, a police colonel exchanged gunfire with the Daredevils (emptying his gun on the approaching attackers) and became the only fatality on that day. While on the compound, the hostages were treated with respect and kept in conditions similar to those of the gunmen. They were even entrusted with guns during an impromptu ceremony on the compound to honor the deceased police colonel. All hostages were released unharmed in a show of good will by July 23.
As police started using sniper fire and wounded a number of gunmen, medical personnel were asked to remain on the compound to care for the wounded. They too were treated with respect and eventually allowed to leave unharmed.
One other police officer, who was wounded during the takeover, died in the hospital. A third officer was shot and died in strange circumstances while inside the car guarding the compound.
Q: Did the armed group pose any danger to civilians?
A: No, the group did not harm any civilians. On the contrary, thousands of people in Yerevan organized daily rallies in support of the Daredevils. In addition, there was an outpouring of support for the gunmen from elsewhere in Armenia and the Diaspora communities worldwide. Social networks and independent media outlets were flooded with posts and articles praising the gunmen for endangering their lives to bring change in Armenia.
Q: How did the residents of the nearby neighborhoods and elsewhere in Yerevan respond to the takeover of the police compound?
A: The first day after the takeover of the compound, the residents of the neighborhood were evacuated by the police and the entire area was surrounded by police troops, not letting civilians re-enter the territory. There were numerous incidents where the residents tried to break through the police wall to get closer to the armed group.
One civilian, Arthur Sargsyan, eventually broke the police barricade with his car—despite being shot at by police numerous times, as evident from the bullet marks on his car—to deliver food to the gunmen, who were deprived of food and water by surrounding police. He chose to remain on the compound until the Daredevils laid down their arms and despite his very poor health remained in police custody (along with the Daredevils) until his release today, December 30th.
Q: Did the sides honor their part of the agreement reached during the mediation process?
A: At least on three important occasions the Armenian regime and its representatives reneged on their previous commitments and failed to deliver as promised.
First, the regime failed to provide continuous Internet and media access promised to the Daredevils in exchange for releasing the high-level hostages.
Second, the police assured the Daredevils that it will allow them to bring one of the wounded members out to the ambulance. However, when the leader of the gunmen, Pavel Manukyan, his son Aram, and another gunman carried a wounded gunman to the ambulance, the police shot and wounded all three of them. They were taken to the hospital with severe life-threatening wounds.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Serge Sargsyan reneged on his promise (made through a negotiator) to meet the leader of the Daredevils, Jirayr Sefilian (arrested in June on charges of conspiracy against the government), if/when the group lays down arms.
Q: Has the group managed to spark a public movement as initially intended?
A: Yes, it did. The takeover of the police compound has sparked protest actions across Armenia, with an estimated 10,000-20,000 protesters marching in Yerevan on a daily basis starting on July 23. Other cities, such as Gyumri, Vanadzor, and Hrazdan, also manifested protest actions against the regime and in support of the Daredevils. The resulting civil movement was for a brief period consolidated and led by prominent opposition politicians, activists, and intellectuals, a number of whom were subjected to persecution and are presently under arrest.
Q: Now that the members of the group laid down their arms, are they expected to be treated fairly by the regime and its law enforcement apparatus?
A: Independent media and social network reports provided evidence of mistreatment of the Daredevils, who laid down their arms on July 31. Those who were wounded receive even harsher treatments in prison medical facilities that are not fit for keeping wounded individuals. They endure abuse and brutality on daily basis by police and Armenia’s successor of Soviet KGB, as also reported by the defense lawyers.
The government has also pursued the family members of the Daredevils, used indiscriminate detention, scare tactics, and outright brutality. Since the surrender of the gunmen, following their laying down of arms, the regime severely limited and in some cases banned visits by defense lawyers and family members.
Finally, the regime also moved to arrest senior members of the “New Armenia” Public Salvation Front, Andreas Ghukasyan and Garo Yegnukian, on trumped up charges of intending to aid the gunmen. They continue to be kept in prison to date along with Jirayr Sefilian on much abused and criticized “pre-trial detention”.
Q: Does their arrest imply the end of the standoff?
A: While the standoff itself is over, the movement that it sparked is unlikely to end any time soon. Given the severity of the social-economic, demographic, and national security/geopolitical problems facing Armenia at present, the movement that was created as a result of the actions of the Daredevils is expected to survive their arrests and even get stronger if the regime proceeds with the Russian-brokered deal in Artsakh. Besides, the police brutality and the ongoing crackdown on political dissent in Yerevan will without doubt expand anti-government action until a different societal equilibrium is found. The regime no longer has the monopoly on violence and it could face different types of assaults by its own population if it continues to mishandle the country’s affairs.