By Emil Danielyan and Armen Zakarian
The Council of Europe on Monday renewed its calls for Armenia to honor all of its membership commitments and remove the death penalty from its criminal code even if that would mean going against the dominant public mood. Lord Russell-Johnston, president of the Council’s Parliamentay Assembly (PACE), told deputies of the Armenian parliament that they should make sure that nobody, including the jailed gunmen who held them hostage after killing their speaker and seven other officials in October 1999, is ever executed in Armenia.
“I know that this is not a popular measure, particularly in the aftermath of the horrific crime which took the lives of your speaker, your prime minister and other colleagues,” Lord Russell-Johnston said, speaking in the parliament hall that was scene of the bloody attack. “I believe that it is a measure that needs to be taken for the benefit of the society as a whole.”
Most parliamentarians Russell-Johnston was addressed during the first day of his official visit to Armenia support the de-jure abolition of capital punishment but insist that it must not be applicable to the five perpetrators of the bloodbath currently standing trial. They demand that the gunmen led by former journalist Nairi Hunanian be put to death in any case.
The dominant mood of the Armenian lawmakers led the Council of Europe to warn in July that Yerevan will face suspension from the respected Strasbourg-based organization if any of them is eventually executed.
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 most of the country’s main parties now say that the death penalty must be applied in the case of the parliament shootings as an “exception.” They claim that their position is backed by the majority of Armenians.
But the PACE president said the deputies must be ready to defy public opinion because the death penalty is “in principle wrong.” He said: “One of the responsibilities of members of parliament is not only to follow and reflect what their constituents think. It is also to give a lead in terms of principle and courage.”
President Robert Kocharian has so far avoided public comments on the politically sensitive matter. His proposed draft amendments in the constitution envisage an unconditional abolition of what almost all European nations regard as a brutal and inhumane practice.
Armenia has carried out no executions since 1990, in an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty. Together with Russia and Turkey, it makes up the short list of those Council of Europe member states where capital punishment is still legal.
Russell-Johnston arrived in Yerevan late on Sunday to kick off a week-long tour of the three south Caucasian states aimed at monitoring their compliance with the Council’s requirements. He said Armenia is making “steady progress” towards meeting its membership commitments which include legislative reforms such as changes in the constitution and the laws on elections, civil service, political parties and non-governmental organizations.
He said: “There may be some disagreement about its extent, its sufficiency, its irreversibility. But everybody agrees that important have been achieved, and that is good. Everybody also seems to agree that further progress is needed, and it is normal.”
Russell-Johnston went on to criticize the authorities for what he said was a slow reform of the country’s prison system. “Armenia is a country of an ancient and formidably rich civilization,” he said. “It deserves a prison system to match it. But from what I understand this is not yet the case and the continued control by the ministry of interior…does not assist a change taking place.”
The transfer of prisons from the jurisdiction of the interior ministry to that of the justice ministry is also among the conditions for Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe. The justice ministry will start next month taking over all of the country’s jails except the pre-trial detention sites of police and the ministry of national security. The process is due to be completed in two months.