By Ruzanna Stepanian
Leaders of a coalition of some 50 Armenian non-governmental organizations denounced on Monday a Council of Europe report that praises the Armenian government’s human rights record and effectively justifies their spring crackdown on the opposition.
Some of them endorsed allegations that the main author of the report, Polish lawmaker Jerzy Jaskiernia, is secretly collaborating with the authorities.
The document in question is expected to form the basis of a new resolution on Armenia to be adopted by the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) at its autumn session next week. It will assess Yerevan’s compliance with a previous PACE resolution adopted on April 28, at the height of an opposition campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation.
The 45-nation assembly declared at the time that the Armenian authorities’ heavy-handed response to the campaign of opposition demonstrations, involving mass arrests of opposition activists, is “contrary to the letter and the spirit” of their commitments to the Strasbourg-based organization. It told them to scrap “unjustified restrictions” on peaceful protests, release all opposition detainees and investigate “human rights abuses” reported during the crackdown.
Virtually all jailed oppositionists have since been freed. Jaskiernia’s report claims that the Kocharian administration also has not restricted Armenians’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly and has investigated the rights abuses. “Peaceful demonstrations continue to be authorized and the authorities have refrained from any action which would legally, or in practice, lead to unjustified restrictions to the freedom of assembly,” it says.
Vartan Poghosian, an opposition lawyer whose Democracy organization is an active member of the Armenian umbrella group called the Partnership for Open Society, strongly disagreed, accusing Jaskiernia of “distorting facts.” He argued that only one of six rallies held by the opposition in Yerevan after April 28 was sanctioned by the authorities.
“We conclude that the draft resolution submitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe does not reflect the real situation in the country, neither on freedom of assembly nor on freedom of movement. In fact, the draft report distorts it,” Poghosian charged at a news conference.
“I have the impression that the report was drafted by a totally uninformed person,” said Mesrop Harutiunian of the Yerevan Press Club, an independent media watchdog.
Another NGO activist, Georgi Vanian of the Caucasus Center For Peace Initiatives, slammed Jaskiernia for condoning the brutal break-up of an opposition rally near Kocharian’s official residence on the night from April 12-13. “It is amazing, to say the least, that the rapporteurs have such a cosmetic attitude,” he said.
Security forces used water cannons, stun grenades and, according to witness accounts, electric-shock equipment to disperse a crowd of between 2,000 and 3,000 people, beating up and arresting scores of them. The authorities maintain that the use of force was necessary because it prevented a violent regime change.
“It seems that the police did not use excessive force,” reads the report submitted to the PACE. “The demonstrators had received adequate warnings and the police forces present acted in accordance with the law, using legal means of dispersal.”
The conclusion contrasts sharply with the findings of Human Rights Watch which strongly condemned “the excessive use of police force” and the broader “cycle of repression” in May. The New York-based watchdog said Yerevan must “cease the use of stun grenades and electric-shock equipment for the control of nonviolent public demonstrations.”
Jaskiernia’s report further urges the PACE to “express satisfaction at its excellent co-operation with the Armenian authorities, their open-minded attitude and the quality of the ongoing dialogue on compliance with obligations and commitments.” Not surprisingly, the document has been praised by Armenian officials, notably deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian.
The Polish parliamentarian’s positive stance on the Armenian government has been repeatedly condemned by the opposition. Opposition leaders openly accused Jaskiernia of political corruption after the authorities financed the publication of the Armenian version of his book about the PACE ahead of his fact-finding trip to Yerevan in June. Jaskiernia denied any conflict of interest, saying that he drew no material benefits from the book promotion.
Poghosian, however, reiterated opposition claims that the PACE’s chief Armenia rapporteur may have cut a deal with the authorities. “Right from the beginning of his work Jerzy Jaskiernia has displayed a biased attitude,” he said. “In my view, this bias may testify to the existence of certain agreements between the Armenian authorities and Jaskiernia to paint a rosy picture of Armenian reality.”
(Photolur photo: Jerzy Jaskiernia.)