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By Emil Danielyan and Armen Zakarian

Armenia will face “serious political consequences” in the international arena if it ends its 12-year moratorium on executions of criminal convicts, the head of the Council of Europe warned on Saturday.

In an interview with RFE/RL, the Council’s Secretary General Walter Schwimmer said Yerevan must “fully respect” its obligation to scrap the death penalty and avoid any exceptions to what he called a “hard-core human rights principle.”

The issue will be high on the agenda of Schwimmer’s three-day visit to Yerevan which starts on Monday. He is due to discuss with Armenian leaders fulfillment of political and legal commitments assumed by them when Armenia joined the Council of Europe in January 2001. The unconditional abolition of capital punishment was one of the main conditions for its hard-won membership.

However, a new criminal code approved by the Armenian parliament last month contains a loophole allowing the execution of individuals convicted of serious crimes committed before its entry into force. The measure is primarily directed against five jailed gunmen who had staged a bloody attack on the parliament in October 1999. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, echoing the dominant mood in the country’s political class, effectively called for their execution earlier this week.

But in a written reply to RFE/RL questions sent from his Strasbourg office, Schwimmer made it clear that the death penalty “has no place in a civilized democracy.” “Soon, we shall finalize guidelines on human rights and terrorism, which will also stress that there can be no ‘terrorism exception’ to this principle,” he said, alluding to the parliament attack case.

“Abolition of capital punishment is a hard-core human rights principle and therefore non-negotiable for the Council of Europe. Armenia has made a clear commitment to maintain a moratorium on executions and I expect this to be fully respected. I do not want to speculate on the serious political consequences any other course of action would entail," Schwimmer added.

A similar warning was issued in May by an Italian diplomat representing the Council’s main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers. Ambassador Pietro Ago had already warned last year that Armenia could face suspension of its membership if any of the parliament attackers is put to death.

Schwimmer said he will also talk with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials about “preparation of forthcoming elections,” the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and “media questions” -- an apparent reference to the controversy surrounding the closure of the independent A1+ television.

The Council of Europe has joined international criticism of the Armenian authorities’ decision to pull the plug on the popular channel which was often critical of Kocharian. The organization has thus called into question their assurances that last April’s bidding for A1+’s air frequency was fair and not politically motivated.

A regulatory commission appointed by Kocharian awarded the frequency to an entertainment company with reported links to the presidential administration, saying that it had submitted a stronger bid. The move sparked a wave of protests by local journalists and leading opposition parties. It has also been criticized by the United States and Western media watchdogs.

In his interview, Schwimmer confirmed Ago’s claims that Kocharian has pledged to help A1+ resume its broadcasts in the near future. He said: “I am aware that the Armenian authorities are looking for a solution to the A1+ case and I am confident that a positive solution will soon be found.”

It is expected that A1+ will take part in a tender for another frequency to be held by the National Commission on Television and Radio in October. Ago told reporters in Yerevan on May 16 that Council of Europe experts will work with Armenian officials to ensure that “A1+ can successfully participate in those tenders.”

"In this case - as in any licensing procedure - the contest has to be conducted in a fair and transparent manner, on the basis of clear and objective criteria,” Schwimmer said. “Also it should be possible to challenge the decision of the licensing body, to grant or not to grant, to renew or not to renew a broadcasting license, before a court.”

On the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Schwimmer said the influential Strasbourg-based organization comprising 43 European nations is ready to assist in the difficult search for a peace accord acceptable to all parties. He said: “We support the negotiation process under the auspices of OSCE and the Minsk Group and we would like to better understand the prospects and problems there. We also stand ready to contribute to the peace process by using collective Council of Europe expertise, particularly that of the Venice Commission."

Schwimmer also reminded that Armenia and Azerbaijan undertook to end their bitter dispute only by peaceful means when they were simultaneously admitted into the organization. “They accepted that by simultaneously joining the process of European integration, they had a unique opportunity to reach the necessary political solution. The Council of Europe takes that commitment as seriously as any other.”
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