A demonstrator waves an Armenian flag as others block a street during a protest against an increase of electricity prices in Yerevan on June 26, 2015
Yerevan (AFP) - Armenian authorities launched a criminal investigation Friday into police officers involved in a brutal crackdown on demonstrators protesting against electricity price hikes.
Mikael Aharonyan, spokesman for Armenia's special investigative service, told AFP that the inquiry had been opened into alleged police violence, abuse of power and obstructing journalists.
If found guilty, officers could face up to six years in prison.
The South Caucasus nation of 3.2 million people has been rattled by two weeks of protests over plans by a Russian-owned company to increase electricity prices by 16 percent from August.
In late June, hundreds of riot police moved in against protesters, using batons and water cannon to quell the largest anti-government demonstrations the ex-Soviet nation has seen in years.
Police also beat up journalists and destroyed or confiscated their equipment, sparking international condemnation.
After studying evidence, including videotapes of the clashes, the investigative service said that police officers had exceeded their powers "in an obvious manner", used violence against demonstrators and journalists, and "inflicted significant damage on the legitimate interests of society and the state."
Washington, Brussels and the OSCE have all expressed concern over the violence.
In an earlier concession to the protesters, President Serzh Sarkisian announced last week that the government would temporarily "bear the burden" of the higher prices pending an audit of Armenia's power distribution company.
The daily rallies in the capital Yerevan have gradually dwindled, with a few thousand people still gathering in the city centre in the evenings.
Both Armenian activists and Sarkisian denied the rallies were either political or anti-Russian.
But grievances against Moscow, which owns some of Armenia's most prized assets, have long been building in a country hit hard by the economic crisis in Russia.
Relations suffered a huge blow in January when a soldier serving at the Russian military base in the tiny Caucasus nation murdered a local family of seven, including a six-month-old boy.
On Thursday, demonstrators observed a moment of silence in honour of the baby, who would have turned one.
- Pro-EU activist heckled -
Protesters also heckled prominent Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan who showed up at the rally late Thursday evening with an EU flag.
Accusing Hayrikyan of trying to politicise the rallies, the protesters encircled the veteran activist, calling him a "provocateur" and chanting "Hayastan" (Armenia).
Protesters also managed to snatch EU flags from the hands of Hayrikyan's companions.
The dissident said he showed up because many of the protesters suffered in the police crackdown and turned to the European Court of Human Rights.
"And then Armenia is Europe, part of the European civilisation," he added.
Some politicians in Russia expressed fears that the protests could grow to resemble Ukrainian rallies that ultimately ousted a Moscow-backed government last year.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday issued a thinly-veiled warning to the West against an attempt to stage a revolution in Armenia.
"You know how 'colour' revolutions, the Maidan in Ukraine started. Many are tempted to also use the current events in Armenia to inflame anti-government sentiment, although the root of these events is purely economic," he said.