Hundreds of opposition protesters arrested in Armenia

Opposition supporters have held rallies since last week to denounce Sarkisian's efforts to remain in power as prime minister after a decade as president

Yerevan (AFP) – Police arrested some 230 people as opposition supporters staged sit-ins and attempted to block traffic in Armenia’s capital Friday, the latest protests at what they brand a power-grab by ex-president Serzh Sarkisian.

For the past week, thousands of opposition supporters have held rallies to denounce Sarkisian’s efforts to remain in power as prime minister after a decade serving as president.

On Friday, demonstrators waved national flags and held up placards reading “Sarkisian is a dictator” as protests in the impoverished former Soviet country went into their eighth day. 

“We are supported by 80 percent of the people and the time has come for Serzh Sarkisian to realise that he has to leave,” opposition lawmaker and protest leader Nikol Pashinyan told reporters at the start of a rally Friday evening. 

Protesters earlier tried to block roads in response to repeated calls by Pashinyan to paralyse traffic, but police prevented those attempts.

A police spokesman told AFP more than 233 people were detained in Yerevan.

Protesters also rallied in the second city of Gyumri where they attempted to block a main road leading to the capital. 

The Caucasus country’s religious leaders called on the opposition to end street protests and negotiate with authorities after a meeting with Sarkisian, news agencies reported. 

“We are praying for the situation to gradually stabilise,” the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church Karekin II was quoted as saying. 

Constitutional amendments approved in 2015 have transferred power from the presidency to the premier.

Sarkisian in effect remained the country’s leader by taking the post of prime minister after a parliament vote this week.

– ‘Arbitrary arrests’ – 

Opposition supporters have criticised the 63-year-old leader over poverty, corruption and the influence of powerful oligarchs.

The spokesman for Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party said the newly elected prime minister would not step down.

“We respects citizens’ right to freedom of assembly but we rule out the possibility of the prime minister resigning,” Eduard Sharmazanov told journalists late Thursday.

Human Rights Watch condemned the “arbitrary arrests” of demonstrators.

“One should not underestimate the challenges Armenia’s police are facing in maintaining law and order, but the ongoing protests are no justification to arbitrarily detain people,” it said in a statement late Thursday.

Under a new parliamentary system of government, lawmakers elected Sarkisian as prime minister on Tuesday after he served a decade as president from 2008.

– ‘Peaceful disobedience’ –

Protest leader Pashinyan this week called for “a peaceful velvet revolution.”

“The mechanism we are using is peaceful disobedience,” he told AFP in an interview.

Analysts say that the opposition so far lacks resources to oust the leader even though huge public anger has built up in recent years.

The number of demonstrators has somewhat dwindled over the past few days, down from roughly 40,000 who took to the streets Tuesday when Sarkisian was elected by parliament.

On Thursday, more than 15,000 protesters staged a rally outside government headquarters as Sarkisian chaired his first cabinet meeting since the controversial vote.

On Monday police used stun grenades against protesters who tried to break through a barbed wire cordon to get to the parliament building.

Authorities said at the time that 46 people, including six police and Pashinyan sought medical help.

The country’s new president, Armen Sarkisian — no relation to now prime minister Serzh — was sworn in last week but his post is largely ceremonial under the new system of government.

A former military officer, Serzh Sarkisian has been in charge of the landlocked South Caucasus nation of 2.9 million people for a decade.

He also held the office of prime minister from 2007 to 2008.

After he was first elected in 2008, 10 people died and hundreds were injured in bloody clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate.