By Karine Kalantarian
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on Saturday that the current Armenian parliament is unlikely to completely abolish the death penalty despite the Council of Europe’s threats to sanction Armenia. He said he hopes the next legislature, to be elected in May next year, will meet the June 2003 deadline for scrapping capital punishment set by the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) on Thursday.
“I think that we will deal with that issue after the parliamentary elections of next May,” Oskanian said in a foreign policy speech in Yerevan.
The PACE warned in a long resolution that Armenia will risk facing serious sanctions if it fails to ratify Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans the death penalty in peace-time, before the assembly’s next summer session scheduled for late June.
Oskanian’s comments suggest that President Robert Kocharian, who is believed to support the protocol’s ratification, is unlikely to press the parliament to scrap a clause in its recently passed Criminal Code that allows the execution of some convicts. The clause is specifically directed against five gunmen who staged a massacre in the parliament building in October 1999. Most parliamentarians believe that they must be put to death because of the exceptional nature of their crime.
The PACE said it is “shocked” by this attitude and made it clear that the Council of Europe will not tolerate “any exceptions or restrictions.”
Kocharian’s decision to exert pressure on the lawmakers, many of whom witnessed the bloodbath and were held hostage by the gunmen, could rekindle accusations that he was behind the assassination of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials. Besides, the president is now more preoccupied with ensuring his reelection next February’s presidential vote.
The parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place on May 25, 2003. Under the Armenian constitution, the new National Assembly must convene no later than June 12. This means that the next parliament will have time to debate and vote on Protocol No. 6 before the PACE session in Strasbourg.
Oskanian said that despite strong criticism of Armenia’s failure to abolish the death penalty the PACE resolution was “quite positive.” The resolution notes that the Armenian authorities have made “substantial progress” in fulfilling their membership commitments.
However, it carries a long list of other demands relating to civil liberties and legal reform. The 44-nation assembly demanded, among other things, the legalization of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the reopening of Armenia’s leading independent television station.