By Armen Zakarian
Senior legislators from the Council of Europe assessed on Tuesday the freedom of speech and association in Armenia on the second day of a fact-finding mission aimed at determining the country’s compliance with conditions for its membership of the respected organization.
The ad hoc monitoring committee of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), headed by Slovak deputy Iren Belohorska, met with representatives of Armenian civic groups and journalists. The committee members inquired about conditions in which the overwhelmingly private Armenian media outlets operate.
They on Monday visited a prison located 40 kilometers west of Yerevan and met with members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group imprisoned for their refusal to perform compulsory military service. Armenia undertook to enact legislation within the next three years allowing conscientious objectors to perform an alternative service as it joined the Council of Europe last January. But human rights groups say it continued to prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses even after securing the membership.
The visiting monitors declined to reveal their first impressions about Armenia’s progress towards fulfilling membership obligations, saying that they will unveil their findings in a report to the Strasbourg-based PACE. They will meet with President Robert Kocharian, other top officials and leaders of opposition parties before wrapping up the visit on Friday.
Armenia’s compliance with the long list of membership commitments is also monitored by another body set up earlier this year by the Council of Europe’s more powerful Committee of Ministers representing member governments. The so-called Ago Group led by Italy’s Ambassador in Strasbourg, Pietro Ago, visited the country in early July on a similar fact-finding mission. Ago said at the end of the trip that the Armenian authorities have demonstrated a “sincere wish and determination to go forward.” But he warned against the possible execution of five gunmen that stormed the Armenian parliament two years ago, saying that Yerevan should seek to waive its pledge to abolish the death penalty.