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By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg

The Council of Europe began discussing late Thursday a crucial report that envisages serious political sanctions against Armenia if it fails to unconditionally abolish the death penalty, a key condition for its admission into the respected organization.

The document, submitted to the council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), reviews the fulfillment of Yerevan’s membership obligations that also relate to broader human rights, press and religious freedom and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It was drafted by two PACE rapporteurs who have paid several fact-finding visits to the country since the beginning of 2001.

Irena Belohorska of Slovakia and Jerzy Jaskernia of Poland are proposing that the 44-nation assembly suspend Armenia’s membership if it fails to ratify Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights by June 2003. The protocol bans the death penalty in all circumstances except times of war.

Yerevan was originally due to ratify it by January 2002. However, the authorities have failed to meet the deadline amid strong domestic opposition to any clemency for the five jailed perpetrators of the 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament. Most members of the legislature insist on the gunmen’s execution as an exception from the rule -- a stance rejected by Strasbourg officials and the council’s member governments.

The new 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. However, some PACE deputies are demanding that the decision be taken before the end of this year.

The report criticizes the Armenian authorities for their failure to legalize Jehovah’s Witnesses and its continuing prosecution of young members of the religious group who refuse military service.

It also effectively addresses the scandalous closure last April of the independent A1+ television, saying that the first controversial biddings for TV frequencies have provoked “strong protests” from the public. The rapporteurs call for major amendments to the Armenian law on broadcasting which many believe is open to government abuse.

Also mentioned is the Karabakh conflict, which Armenia and Azerbaijan pledged to resolve by peaceful means when they simultaneously joined the Council of Europe in January 2001. The Armenian delegation at PACE is pushing for the removal of a reference to the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh. They also object to the report’s conclusion that the dispute over Karabakh is a “territorial” one.

PACE was also scheduled to discuss on Thursday evening a similar report on political reform in Azerbaijan. Despite containing strong criticism of President Heydar Aliev’s tightening grip on power and the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, the report does not suggest specific sanctions against Baku.
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