By Emil Danielyan
Armenian leaders assured a visiting senior official from the Council of Europe on Friday that they will meet the organization's June 2003 deadline for the unconditional abolition of the death penalty.
The council’s commissioner for human rights, Alvaro Gil-Robles, said he was told by President Robert Kocharian and other high-ranking officials that Armenia will ratify a corresponding protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights by next June.
“The death penalty is not applied and will not be applied in Armenia. This is the explicit assurance I have received,” Gil-Robles told reporters after what he called “very open and frank discussions” in Yerevan. He said the question now is “how to make capital punishment disappear from the legal system of the country.”
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian confirmed that the Yerevan is committed to fulfilling all obligations stemming from its membership of the Council of Europe. He thanked the Strasbourg-based organization for its “understanding of political problems” facing the issue and for extending the deadline for the abolition of the death penalty.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) warned last week Armenia’s failure to do so by next June could lead to serious political sanctions. The PACE denounced the Armenian parliament for keeping open the possibility of death sentences to be passed on five jailed gunmen who stormed the assembly three years ago. Eight senior officials, including Armenia’s prime minister and parliament speaker, were shot dead in the attack.
Meeting with senior Armenian parliamentarians, including deputy speaker Tigran Torosian, earlier in the day today reaffirmed the Council of Europe’s strong opposition to any exceptions from the rule. Torosian is one of the leaders of the current parliamentary majority which wants such an exception to be applied to the politically sensitive case of the parliament killings.
Oskanian effectively admitted over the weekend that the current National Assembly is unlikely to ratify the pan-European convention’s Protocol No. 6, saying that the presidential administration is pinning its hopes on the next legislature to be elected in May 2003.
Gil-Robles also urged the Armenian authorities to enact legislation on alternative service for male citizens. “There has to be a clear solution in line with European traditions and standards. Namely, an alternative civilian service,” he said.
More than two dozen conscientious objectors, most of them affiliated the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group, are currently serving prison terms in Armenia for refusing compulsory military service. In a resolution adopted on September 26, the PACE demanded that the authorities legalize the group and stop prosecuting its members.
Under a bill on alternative service drafted by an Armenian parliamentary committee, conscientious objectors would be placed in special barracks inside army units to perform non-combat duties. Some Strasbourg officials say this arrangement runs counter to European standards.
Oskanian assured that Armenian and Council of Europe experts will work together to try to reach a mutually acceptable formula.