By Emil Danielyan and Shakeh Avoyan
Defying warnings by a key Council of Europe body, Armenian authorities indicated on Monday that they will not stop enforcing controversial provisions of a Soviet-era legislation which effectively allow them to jail people without producing clear evidence of wrongdoing.
The organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has urged the authorities to abolish the corresponding articles of Armenia’s Code of Administrative Misdemeanors and to “refrain from applying them in the interim.”
The Armenian Justice Ministry rejected those calls, arguing that official Yerevan did not undertake to amend the code when it was admitted into the Council of Europe two years ago. In a written statement made available to RFE/RL, a senior ministry official in charge of drafting proposals for judicial reform argued that the PACE is a largely consultative body whose recommendations are not binding for member states.
The official, Nikolay Arustamian, said that only the council’s main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, can make such demands to Armenia. “The Armenian authorities have not received such recommendations or proposals from the Committee of Ministers,” he added.
This, according to ministry spokesman Ara Saghatelian, means that Armenian police and courts can continue to prosecute anyone suspected of “disrupting public order.”
Courts across the country have cited the controversial legal provisions in sentencing more than a hundred people to up to 15 days in prison over the past four weeks as part of an unprecedented government crackdown on the opposition led by Stepan Demirchian, the controversially defeated presidential candidate. The jail sentences, officially known as “administrative arrests,” were handed down after brief closed trials condemned by domestic and international human rights groups.
The defendants have routinely been denied access to lawyers. Charges against them stemmed from their participation in a series of unsanctioned opposition protests against alleged widespread electoral fraud. Many were jailed for committing unspecified “hooligan acts” during the demonstrations. However, the rallies held in Yerevan have so far been remarkably peaceful, in sharp contrast to the ongoing protests around the world against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The first wave of arrests began in the run-up to the March 5 second round of the presidential election. Many of the more than 100 detainees were Demirchian proxies who had reported serious irregularities during the February 19 first round. They were released from custody just before the run-off vote following a strong international uproar.
A joint monitoring mission from the PACE and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denounced the crackdown as running counter to Armenia’s international commitments.
“Those court verdicts contravene not only our international commitments but also Armenian laws,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a local human rights group. “What kind of a country are we living in? Are we really a member of the Council of Europe?”
The arrests resumed last week, with at least 40 opposition supporters held by the police. According to Saghatelian, 19 of them were given short jail sentences before the most recent opposition rally held on Friday. Opposition leaders say dozens of other sympathizers of Demirchian were detained following the rally.
“If they see something illegal going on, they should first punish organizers of the demonstrations, not their participants,” one of them, Shavarsh Kocharian, told RFE/RL.
The PACE demanded the changes in the Administrative Code in a special resolution on the fulfillment of Armenia’s Council of Europe obligations adopted last September, long before the start of the presidential race. The resolution warned that the code’s provisions regulating administrative arrest are open to government abuse.
Those clauses were criticized by Human Rights Watch in stronger terms a few months later. “The administrative court system appeared to be little more than a ‘pocket court’ for police,” the New York-based watchdog charged in a report on Armenia’s 2002 human rights record.
The Justice Ministry’s Arustamian said the authorities are now working on a new administrative code and are “refraining from applying administrative arrests as much as possible.” But as Human Rights Watch campaigner put it earlier this month, the Armenian leadership is continuing the practice “on an industrial scale.”