Protesters match in Armenia over detained opposition leader

Hundreds of opposition supporters took to the streets of Armenia’s capital Monday amid rising political turmoil as the whereabouts of the protest leader remained unclear a day after he was detained.

On the 11th day of demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country, young men in small groups briefly blocked roads in Yerevan and shouted slogans such as “Join us!” and “Victory” and the name of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as drivers beeped their horns in support.

Hundreds of students, some medical students in white coats, also marched arm-in-arm through the streets, holding Armenian flags.

A group of uniformed former soldiers and veterans who fought in Nagorny Karabakh — a breakaway region seized by Armenian separatists from neighbouring Azerbaijan in a conflict that broke out at the end of the Soviet era — marched with the protesters to parliament.

Tens of thousands also rallied in Yerevan over the weekend against the rule of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the country’s former president.

– Need for ‘real talks’ –

The whereabouts of lawmaker Pashinyan were unclear after he was detained on Sunday.

His lawyer Rustam Badasyan wrote on Facebook: “There is no answer to the question of where he is.”

As a lawmaker, Pashinyan is protected by parliamentary immunity and cannot be arrested without the approval of fellow MPs.

Under Armenian law, MPs can only be arrested without this approval when they are caught committing a crime, in which case they can be held for up to a maximum of 72 hours.

The speaker of Armenia’s parliament, the National Assembly, met Pashinyan and other detained politicians overnight, parliament’s spokesman told AFP, without giving details.

Speaker Ara Babloyan was quoted as saying that he had urged Pashinyan and the others “to take part in real talks”.

– ‘Enemy watching’ –

Defence Minister Vigen Sarkisian warned that Armenia’s foe Azerbaijan is gaining from the unrest.

“The enemy is looking at events in our country. Instability inside our country opens a road for them to take action. We need to tell society about this,” he said at a press conference.

He said the army could only become involved if a state of emergency is declared, which he hopes will not happen “for years to come”.

“I think we have not crossed any red lines yet and dialogue can continue,” he said. “Dialogue is better than any tension. I am opposed to Armenians coming out against Armenians.”

Pashinyan and two other opposition politicians “were detained as they were committing socially dangerous acts”, the prosecutor general’s office said in a statement on Sunday.

Sarkisian on Sunday stormed out of tense televised talks with Pashinyan, the leader of the Civil Contract Party, accusing him of “blackmail”.

Pashinyan last week announced the “start of a peaceful velvet revolution” in the landlocked country of 2.9 million people.

Hundreds of people were detained at protest rallies across Yerevan on Sunday.

On Monday, Armenia’s Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, said 26 had been detained on suspicion of “hooliganism” and use of violence against police.

Sarkisian was elected prime minister by lawmakers last week under a new parliamentary system of government that transfers power from the presidency to the premier, while the president becomes largely a ceremonial role.

Sarkisian, a shrewd former military officer, was first elected as president of the impoverished Moscow-allied country in 2008.

After that poll, 10 people died in clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate.

He was reelected in 2013, with his second and final term ending April 9.