By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenian lawmakers will likely leave a legal loophole to allow for a death sentence to be handed down against the perpetrators of the 1999 parliament massacre, when they debate the abolition of capital punishment next week.
The widely expected move could set Armenia on a collision course with the Council of Europe, which is strongly opposed to what it regards as a "barbaric punishment." Armenia undertook to remove the death penalty from its criminal code when it joined the respected human rights organization in January 2001.
Armenian officials have said since then that the Council of Europe should allow Yerevan to "make an exception" for the five gunmen that went on a bloody rampage in its parliament on October 27, 1999. Some of those officials have claimed recently that European decision makers are ready to soften their tough stance against such an option.
However, a visiting senior representative of the Council's main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, explicitly denied the claims last week. "The position of the Council of Europe is firm on the death penalty, and no exceptions should take place," Ambassador Pietro Ago told reporters in Yerevan.
Ago leads an ad hoc commission that has been monitoring Armenia's and Azerbaijan's compliance with their membership commitments. The Italian diplomat warned last summer that Armenia could face a suspension of its Council of Europe membership if it executes any of the jailed gunmen who have been on trial since February 2001.
The influential deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, Tigran Torosian, told RFE/RL Tuesday that he thinks the majority of lawmakers will vote for the removal of the clause allowing for the death penalty from the Criminal Code and ratify Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights. The protocol bans the death penalty in all cases except war, imminent threat of war or "exceptional circumstances."
But Torosian acknowledged that the parliament's decision will contain "solutions" allowing courts to sentence to death ringleader Nairi Hunanian and his four henchmen. He declined to react to Ago's comments.
Some parliament factions are against the scrapping of capital punishment in any form. Deputies from the opposition People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) claimed on Tuesday that the measure would give rise to crime.
The HZhK's charismatic founder and the former parliament speaker, Karen Demirchian, was among eight officials shot dead in the 1999 terrorist attack on the parliament.
Armenia has observed an unofficial moratorium on executions since 1990, with some 30 convicts currently on death row. All of them are expected to have their death sentences changed to life imprisonment.