By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading political groups remain unbending in their demands for the execution of the five jailed gunmen who stormed the parliament in October 1999, dismissing the possibility of Yerevan’s suspension from the Council of Europe.
The parties and independent deputies holding the overwhelming majority of parliament seats insist that the Strasbourg-based organization “make an exception” for Armenia and allow it to apply the death penalty in the politically charged case.
Abolition of the death penalty, mandated by the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, was one of the key conditions for Armenia’s hard-won accession to the Council of Europe just over a year ago. But Yerevan has already failed to meet the January 2002 deadline for signing up to the convention amid strong domestic opposition to its Protocol No. 6 specifically banning capital punishment. Its ratification by the parliament was to be followed by the scrapping of a corresponding clause in the Armenian Criminal Code.
The Constitutional Court is currently examining the Protocol’s conformity with the Armenian constitution which allows the extreme measure for “exceptionally grave crime.”
The document will be put to debate in the National Assembly after the court’s judgment. Most of its factions are adamant that former Nairi Hunanian and the four other perpetrators of the parliament massacre should be put to death after their ongoing trial.
The leader of the Hayastan parliamentary group, Miasnik Malkhasian, summed up the dominant mood when he said on Thursday: “We will be against the abolition of the death penalty if no exception is made for the October 27 criminals.”
Tigran Torosian, deputy speaker of the parliament representing the largest faction, Miasnutyun, said he thinks it is possible to persuade Strasbourg officials to soften their tough stance against the death penalty.
However, the head of the Armenian delegation at the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), Hovannes Hovannisian, ruled out such possibility. He said: “They do not accept any exceptions. Armenia and its delegation are just unable to change the rules of the game set by the Council of Europe 50 years ago.”
President Robert Kocharian has not disclosed his position on the highly sensitive issue so far. He is seen as walking a delicate line, anxious to avoid accusations of condoning the assassination of prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials. But his constitutional amendment package does envisage a complete ban on executions.
Armenia has carried out no executions since 1990, in an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty. It is expected that some 30 convicts that have been on death row for years will eventually have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment.
Officials from the Council of Europe’s main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, warned during a visit to Yerevan in July that Armenia will face suspension of its membership if it executes any of the parliament gunmen.