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By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to complete the abolition of the death penalty in Armenia and satisfy one of the main condition’s for its membership of the Council of Europe.

Armenian leaders hope that the ratification of the Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights will stave off punitive action threatened by the organization over their handling of this year’s elections. The move effectively invalidated a clause in Armenia’s new criminal code that allows capital punishment in exceptional cases such as terrorism and sexual abuse of children.

The ratification was backed by 92 deputies of the 131-member National Assembly dominated by supporters of President Robert Kocharian. Twenty-two others did not take part in the vote. Most of them are members of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance which has been pushing for the execution of the five jailed gunmen that attacked the previous assembly in October 1999.

Among the eight officials assassinated by them were then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian. Artarutyun is led by Demirchian’s son Stepan and Sarkisian’s brother Aram.

“Vazgen Sarkisian was the leader of your party,” Artarutyun’s Victor Dallakian appealed to deputies from the governing Republican Party led by the current premier, Andranik Markarian. “Should God have added ‘Do not betray’ to his commandments?”

The emotional references drew an irritated response from Tigran Torosian, the deputy speaker and an HHK leader. “If Vazgen Sarkisian was alive, he would be the first to demand the ratification of the sixth protocol,” Torosian said. “You must not exploit the victims’ names.”

Other Artarutyun deputies argued that most Armenians are against abolishing the death penalty in peacetime. The parliament’s second vice-speaker, Vahan Hovannisian, responded to that by saying that the Armenian leadership’s opinion on the issue carries more weight. “If the Armenian people were always right we would not be confined to these 30,000 square kilometers of land,” he said.

Justice Minister David Harutiunian said the death penalty must be replaced by life imprisonment regardless of Armenia’s commitments to the Council of Europe. “A murder committed by the state is no different from a murder committed by an individual,” he argued.

The delay with the ratification of the Protocol No. 6 has been a key sticking point in Yerevan’s relations with the Council of Europe. It has been singled out by a group of Council of Europe officials monitoring Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s fulfillment of membership commitments. In a report to the organization’s main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, the group led by Italian diplomat Pietro Ercole Ago concluded that progress in the two countries’ democratization “has been halted for almost 18 months.”

The Ago group, which visited Yerevan in July, noted that the presidential and parliamentary elections held in Armenia this year saw “numerous irregularities” and “have given rise to a harsh rejection of the authorities in power.” “The President's legitimacy is challenged by the opposition, part of which refuses to co-operate in any way whatsoever,” says its report publicized on Monday. “The NGOs have also voiced their lack of faith in the institutions they consider to have been unlawfully elected. They expressed their regret that the Monitoring Group had not been more severe, and had merely noted that the elections had not complied with European standards without taking any firm action.”

The report says the Armenian authorities promised to take “specific strong measures to avoid a repetition of such elections.” It goes on to demand other political reforms such as legal guarantees for judges’ independence, decriminalization of libel offences and sweeping amendments to Armenia’s law on broadcasting.

(Photolur photo: Parliament's screen board demonstrating the results of the death penalty vote.)
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