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By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The National Assembly is expected to pass on Thursday amendments to Armenia’s controversial law on rallies which pan-European human rights organizations say infringes on its citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly.

The parliament majority loyal to President Robert Kocharian will almost certainly vote to make it somewhat easier for political and other groups to organize public gatherings. But it will also keep in force one of the most controversial provisions of the legislation which bans demonstrations outside Kocharian’s official residence in Yerevan.

The presidential palace was included last year in the list of “strategically important” locations such as the Metsamor nuclear plant and an underground natural gas storage facility that are off limits to any protesters. No gatherings can now be legally held within a 150-meter radius of those facilities.

The list was drawn up by the Armenian police and approved by the government in August. Under one of the proposed amendments it will be formally incorporated into the text of the law, making any changes in it even more difficult. Deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian claimed that such restrictions exist in some European countries.

But Manuk Gasparian, one of two opposition lawmakers that attended Wednesday’s parliamentary debate on the amendments, strongly criticized the provision. “The people have a right to appeal to their elected president on any issue,” he said.

“Last year’s incident near the presidential palace doesn’t mean that the building should be included in the list of strategic sites,” Gasparian added, referring to an April 2004 opposition rally that was violently dispersed by security forces.

The overnight protest marked the climax of an opposition campaign of demonstrations aimed at forcing Kocharian to resign. The unsuccessful campaign is thought to have been instrumental in the law’s enactment on May 4, 2004.

The so-called Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, a body monitoring legislative reform in the organization’s member states, concluded afterward that the law does not meet European standards for freedom of assembly. Similar conclusions were drawn by experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In particular, the Europeans expressed concern at legal provisions giving the police sweeping powers to “forcibly discontinue” demonstrations in case of unspecified “violations of the law” and calls for a “violent overthrow” of government.

Parliament majority leaders said on Wednesday that they have accepted most of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission. They argued that the amended law would allow law-enforcement officials to disperse a demonstration only if it poses a threat to “public and state security” and disrupts “the public’s calm at night.”

“If a rally proceeds in a natural way, then nobody will have the right to stop it,” said Torosian.

Another draft amendment would simplified procedures for notifying relevant authorities of plans to rally people in a particular location.

The parliament’s two opposition factions, which did not attend the debate in line with their long-running boycott of parliament sessions, have dismissed the changes as cosmetic.
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