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Death Penalty Threatens Armenia’s Council Membership

By Emil Danielyan

Only six months after its hard-won accession to the Council of Europe Armenia is facing the possibility of suspension from the respected human rights organization over the issue of capital punishment. Its main political parties, which last year made a unanimous pledge to abolish the death penalty, are now demanding that Yerevan be allowed to execute perpetrators of the October 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament.

The trial of the five gunmen that sprayed the assembly with bullets is setting Armenia on a collision course with leading European institutions. Few doubt what the outcome of the politically charged proceedings will be: a death sentence for Nairi Hunanian and his main accomplices. The key question is whether such verdict will be put in practice.

Armenia has carried out no executions since 1990, in an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty. The punishment is to be formally outlawed under the terms of its membership of the Council of Europe. But as the parliamentary parties -- including the members of the governing coalition -- insist, this should not apply to the case of the parliamentary shootings.

The ruling Miasnutyun (Unity) bloc, of which the slain premier and speaker were the co-founders, is particularly keen to see the jailed gunmen put to death. “This was an unprecedented crime, and nobody can teach us lessons in that regard,” says Galust Sahakian, chairman of the bloc’s parliamentary faction.

This view is shared by virtually all other parliamentary forces and is increasingly voiced through the media. The reaction of the Council wasn’t long in coming. An official delegation from Strasbourg delivered a strong and explicit message to the authorities when it visited Yerevan last week: Armenia must make no exceptions from the rule or risk losing its membership.

“If there is a sentence that gives the death penalty but that is later commuted, that will be bad but not terrible,” said Pietro Ago, Italy’s ambassador to the Council of Europe who heads the ad hoc “Ago group” monitoring Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s compliance with their membership commitments.

“But if there is an execution, that could precipitate a crisis in relations between the Council of Europe and Armenia, and bring the [Council’s] Parliamentary Assembly to suspend the participation of Armenia.”

The Armenian government signed the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, including the Protocol No. 6 prohibiting capital punishment, as it joined the prestigious club of European democracies in January. It undertook to make corresponding changes in the Armenian criminal code within a year.

But with the overwhelming majority of lawmakers pushing for the execution of the parliament assailants, this now appears problematic. Much will depend on the position of President Robert Kocharian. Ago said his group was assured by Kocharian that no person will be executed under his rule.

But the Armenian leader, who has so far not publicly commented on the issue, has already been accused by supporters and relatives of the murdered officials of withholding the truth about the parliament bloodbath. Some of them still suspect him of orchestrating the bloodbath with the aim of removing powerful political rivals. So any attempt to prevent the gunmen’s execution would be portrayed by his opponents as support of terrorism.

Yet failure to honor international obligations could be highly damaging for Kocharian’s drive to forge closer ties with Europe, which has been at the forefront of a global campaign against capital punishment. Last month Armenia, together with Russia and Turkey, was singled out by the Council of Europe’s Secretary General Walter Schwimmer as the only European states where the practice is still legal.

Top politicians who had for years sought to persuade Strasbourg officials of Armenia’s European credentials now claim that the Armenian people are not yet prepared for embrace all European norms. In the words of Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Association (AHA), a human rights group opposed to the death penalty, this only betrays their hypocrisy.

“Our so-called elite wants to cunningly fool the Council of Europe and enjoy all benefits of membership, while ignoring conditions set by the latter,” he says.

The politicians’ argument about the “exceptional” character of the crime is deeply flawed, according to Ishkhanian. There are, he says, some 30 convicts currently on death row in Armenia, and some of their crimes were no less gruesome. If the death penalty brings justice then they too have to be killed, Ishkhanian reasons.

The issue raises the question of how “European” is the mentality of Armenian political leaders. Some of their remarks on the subject would surely make them pariahs in any Western society. For example, the deputy speaker of the parliament, Gagik Aslanian, argued in a newspaper interview that Hunanian and the other gunmen can be mistreated in custody because they are “beyond the law.” One senior Communist lawmaker, who believes that Hunanian is not telling the truth at the ongoing trial, suggested torturing his brother and gang member Karen Hunanian before the ringleaders’ eyes as the only way of making him speak up.

Such pronouncements are not deemed politically incorrect in Armenia. So far there have been no opinion polls to gauge the dominant public mood on the death penalty. But all the signs are that public opinion is set against its abolition, especially with regard to the parliament shootings case.

For dozens of people who regularly gather outside a court house in Yerevan justice means death to Hunanian and his henchmen. Even at the cost of the Council’s membership.

“The death penalty, only the death penalty,” says Hovannes Nahapetian, a doctor from Ararat, the native town of the late prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian. “Those who killed Vazgen must be executed in front of the Armenian people. This is what we want, this is our goal.”

Arguments cited by European officials and local human rights activists will hardly make people like Nahapetian change their view. Which is why the AHA’s Ishkhanian believes that the country’s leaders must always be “one step ahead of public opinion.”
But that, he says, does not seem to be the case in Armenia.

“If our political elite wants to be part of the Council of Europe but remain in the Middle Age with its mentality, then I will definitely support suspension of Armenian membership because this is becoming a pattern, not an isolated case.”