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By Ruzanna Khachatrian

The Council of Europe has given Armenia until next June to unconditionally abolish the death penalty in peacetime or face the possibility of sanctions, a senior lawmaker said on Thursday.

Hovannes Hovannisian, who heads the foreign relations committee of the Armenian parliament, said the new deadline was set on Tuesday by a special commission of the council's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) monitoring member countries' compliance with pan-European norms.

The commission met in Paris to discuss, among other things, an interim report on the fulfillment of Armenia’s membership commitments.

Ratification of the Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans the death penalty in all circumstances except times of war, was a key condition for Armenia's admission in January 2001 into the Strasbourg-based organization that promotes democracy and human rights. The authorities in Yerevan undertook to ratify it by January 2002, but failed to honor the pledge due to strong domestic opposition to any clemency for the five perpetrators of the October 1999 massacre in the parliament.

A new Armenian criminal code was passed by the parliament in the first reading this summer. The code, while formally abolishing the death penalty, allows for the gunmen's execution as an exception from the rule. The Council of Europe has rejected the clause as unacceptable. Its legal experts will likely endorse the criticism in a written conclusion expected next month.

The new PACE deadline means that a decision on scrapping capital punishment will have to be taken by the next Armenian parliament to be elected in May 2003. Hovannisian warned that failure to meet it could lead to the imposition of political sanctions against Armenia.
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