By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian opposition scuttled on Friday the passage by the country’s outgoing parliament of two key government bills that have provoked strong controversy.
Parliament votes on Armenia’s new draft Criminal Code and law on mass media failed to make a quorum and were declared void after a boycott staged by the opposition minority. Both legislations will thus be left over to the next National Assembly to be elected on May 25.
Particularly controversial was the government’s media bill strongly criticized by many local journalists. Several dozen reporters, mostly affiliated with the pro-opposition media, have held regular protests outside the parliament building in recent weeks. They claim that the proposed legislation, drafted by the Justice Ministry, threatens Armenia’s shaky press freedom.
Only 43 deputies of the 131-member assembly voted for the bill. Deputy Justice Minister Ashot Abovian, its main author, blamed the protesting journalists for the fiasco, saying that many lawmakers have bowed to their pressure. “I have worked hard for the journalists’ interests,” he complained. “But unfortunately, proponents of journalistic terror have hindered the passage of the law.”
Abovian again insisted that the draft law, which has undergone major changes since being put in circulation last year, would only strengthen freedom of speech in Armenia. But he said he is ready to amend it further if there are appropriate “instructions” from the government.
Under the bill in question Armenian media outlets would no longer have to register with the Justice Ministry in order to be able to operate. Journalists welcome the change but point to several other provisions which they say would restrict their freedom. Those would, among other things, require media to disclose their sources of funding and allow courts to demand the disclosure of journalists’ sources of information for the “protection of public interests.”
The government seemed more frustrated with the parliament’s failure to pass its new Criminal Code in the third, final reading. The move means that the code, passed in two readings last year, will have to be debated from scratch. Mostly probably by the next National Assembly.
The opposition deputies said they object to the proposed legislation because they think it does not allow the execution of five members of an armed group that seized the parliament in October 1999, killing eight senior officials. The code replaces the death penalty with life imprisonment in accordance with Armenia’s commitments to the Council of Europe. Victor Dallakian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, accused the authorities of “giving guarantees to Nairi Hunanian,” the leader of the jailed gunmen.
But deputy speaker Tigran Torosian rejected the argument, pointing to a special legal clause that allows courts to sentence to death those who commit “terrorist acts” and other serious crimes before the new code takes effect. The exception applies to Hunanian, he said.
The new Criminal Code would also lead to an overall softening of punishments for various criminal offences and was expected to result in the release of thousands of convicts. Some of them, mainly former law-enforcement and army officers serving jail sentences for abuse of power in a special Yerevan prison, reacted furiously to its de facto defeat by the opposition.
Their representative, Artur Gevorgian, telephoned RFE/RL from the jail to announce that all 66 inmates will go on a hunger strike on Saturday in protest against the unexpected development. “Some politicians are scuttling legal reforms for their narrow interests,” he said.