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Armenia rally marks deadly riots

Opposition rally in Yerevan (1 March 2009)
One year after the violence, deep divisions remain in Armenian society

Thousands of opposition supporters in Armenia attended a rally on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of its worst political violence since independence.

The protesters in the capital, Yerevan, demanded early elections and the release of "political prisoners".

Opposition leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian said the government needed to change its methods and open a dialogue with the opposition.

Last year's clashes between police and opposition activists left 10 dead.

They broke out after police tried to end protests by thousands of Mr Ter-Petrosian's supporters at the result of the presidential election, which saw him defeated by Serzh Sarkisian, then prime minister.

More than 100 people were arrested during a state of emergency imposed after the violence.

'Not frightened'

During Sunday's demonstration, tens of thousands of protestors marched through central Yerevan carrying banners painted with the words "Freedom for political prisoners".

Dozens of police officers looked on as people chanted "victory" and "freedom" and laid flowers where the worst clashes took place.

A vehicle burns in Yerevan, spring 2008
Days of peaceful protest in Yerevan turned violent in March 2008

"The authorities have drawn no conclusions from these tragic events and have done nothing to establish democracy in the country," Mr Ter-Petrosian told the crowd.

"Despite constant pressure from the government, the people are stronger, are not frightened and are ready to continue the struggle," he said, adding that another opposition rally would be held on 1 May.

The BBC's Tom Esslemont in Yerevan says that one year after the violence, deep divisions remain in Armenian society.

More than 40 people have received jail sentences and some are still on trial, including the former foreign minister, Alexander Arzoumanian.

The government has come under mounting pressure to address what some organisations see as urgent human rights concerns, our correspondent says.

Last week, Human Rights Watch said the authorities were conducting "politically motivated" trials against members of the opposition while failing to investigate the excessive use of force by police during the clashes.

Yerevan's mayor had refused to sanction Sunday's protest, but decided at the last minute to allow people to gather peacefully.

The president's office said Mr Sarkisian had lit candles at a church in memory of those killed last March, who included two police officers.



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