By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg
A key Council of Europe body told Armenia late on Thursday to unconditionally abolish the death penalty in peace-time by next June or risk serious political sanctions, expressing “shock” at the Armenian parliament’s desire to have those who stormed it in 1999 executed.
While noting “substantial progress” in the fulfillment of Armenia’s membership obligations, the council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) issued the authorities in Yerevan with a long list of other demands relating to civil liberties and legal reform. The 44-nation assembly also demanded the legalization of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more implicitly, the reopening of Armenia’s leading independent television station.
“The Assembly expects the Armenian authorities, without delay, to ratify Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights and adopt a Criminal Code in conformity with the standards and principles of the Organization,” says a 26-point resolution adopted by the PACE. “If that does not occur before June 2003, the Assembly may decide to annul the ratified credentials of the Armenian parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe at the June 2003 part-session of the Parliamentary Assembly.”
The resolution is based on a report submitted by two rapporteurs monitoring Armenia’s compliance with European standards and is the toughest yet warning to Yerevan over the abolition of capital punishment. “The Assembly is shocked by the National Assembly’s decision to maintain capital punishment for people who commit certain crimes, in violation of its commitment to abolish the death penalty in the Criminal Code within the year following its accession,” it says.
The PACE alluded to a special clause in the code, adopted last summer in the first reading, that allows the authorities to sentence to death the five jailed gunmen who assassinated Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials in the October 1999 raid on the Armenian parliament. The clause reflects the dominant position of Armenia’s main political parties, which Strasbourg officials find unacceptable.
“The Assembly calls for the complete abolition of the death penalty, without any exceptions or restrictions,” reads the resolution. It also points to a number of other membership obligations which the authorities have not honored so far. This includes their failure to enact laws on mass media and the human rights ombudsman, revise the Code of Criminal Justice and “fully guarantee” the independence of judges.
The assembly expressed concerned at the recently passed law on police, saying that it is conducive to human rights abuses by law-enforcement agencies which it accused of continuing to resort to “torture, violence, ill treatment and bribery.” It also urged President Robert Kocharian to envisage a greater role for the parliament in his draft amendments to the Armenian constitution.
The proposed constitutional changes, which will likely be put on a referendum next year, somewhat curtail presidential powers but still leave him by far the most powerful official in the country.
The PACE resolution, passed late in the evening after a two-hour debate, criticizes the authorities for their failure to legalize the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious groups and “regrets” the continuing prosecution of its young members refusing military service. “The Assembly urges the authorities to register the Jehovah's Witnesses as a religious organization,” it says.
All four Armenian deputies of the PACE tried, unsuccessfully, to remove any reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses, arguing that Yerevan will enact legislation introducing an alternative service for conscientious objectors.
The Council of Europe assembly, whose decisions are not binding for member governments but carry considerable weight, also addressed the politically charged closure of the independent A1+ television. It urged the authorities to honor their “firm commitment” to hold biddings for new air frequencies on October 25, which would allow A1+ to resume broadcasts. Kocharian, who was widely accused of silencing the critical media outlet, has assured European officials that the popular channel will stand a good chance of winning another frequency tender.
The PACE resolution also notes positive developments that have taken place since Armenia’s accession to the organization in January 2001. It says Armenia has signed more than 20 pan-European conventions and treaties and passed several laws fostering democratization. It welcomes the transfer of Armenian prisons under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry and acknowledges “significant improvements in detention conditions.”
Also mentioned is the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with the PACE praising Armenia for its “undeniable efforts” to maintain direct contacts with Azerbaijan and its “positive influence” on the Karabakh Armenians. The Armenian delegation made sure that the conflict is not described as a “territorial” one.
The assembly rejected attempts by the Azerbaijani delegation to add language demanding that Armenia “withdraw its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied Azerbaijani lands.” The Azerbaijani parliamentarians, led by President Heydar Aliev’s son and would-be successor Ilham, also failed to include a clause calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Armenia.
Both conflicting parties were again reminded of their pledge to the Council of Europe to seek a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict.