President Robert Kocharian on Tuesday signed into a law a parliament bill that will make it easier for the Armenian authorities to ban fresh anti-government demonstrations planned by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The measure, rejected as unconstitutional by Ter-Petrosian, took the form of amendments to Armenia’s law on public gatherings that were enacted at an emergency session of the National Assembly late on Monday.
The law has until now allowed authorities to ban those demonstrations which they believe are aimed, among other things, at a “violent overthrow of constitutional order.” One of the amendments overwhelmingly adopted by the parliament complements the clause with cases where authorities have “reliable information” that street protests would pose a threat to “state security, public order, public health and morality.” Any such information coming from the Armenian police and the National Security Service (NSS) will be automatically deemed “reliable.”
Another, more significant, amendment allows the authorities to “temporarily” ban rallies for an unspecified period of time after street gatherings resulting in casualties. The ban shall remain in force until the end of the official investigation into a particular case of deadly street violence.
Leaders of the parliament majority loyal to Kocharian and his incoming successor, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, did not deny that the restrictions are specifically aimed at preventing Ter-Petrosian from again rallying supporters after the anticipated lifting of the state of emergency in Yerevan on Friday.
The state of emergency was imposed by Kocharian on March 1 following the outbreak of violent clashes between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters demanding a re-run of last month’s disputed presidential election. At least seven protesters and one security officer were killed in the clashes.
According to Armen Ashotian, a parliament deputy from Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK), the law was amended in order to “limit and prevent more illegalities that could lead to a loss of life” after the end of emergency rule. He defended the resulting restrictions on Armenians’ civil rights. “The law may be limiting the interests of 100,000 people, but it will protect the life and the rights of 3.5 million other citizens,” Ashotian told RFE/RL.
Similar arguments were made by other HHK lawmakers as well as the parliamentary leaders of the Prosperous Armenia, Dashnaktsutyun and Orinats Yerkir parties during the late-night parliament debates. Only members of Zharangutyun, the sole opposition party represented in the parliament, and independent lawmaker Victor Dallakian voted against the legislation.
Ter-Petrosian’s office said on Tuesday that the enacted amendments “blatantly violate” Armenians’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly and can therefore be ignored by citizens. “In these circumstances, it is the people’s legitimate right to ignore the illegal ban and reaffirm their freedom to hold rallies which is guaranteed by the constitution and international law,” it said in a statement.
“In reality, this is an attempt to perpetuate the state of emergency,” Levon Zurabian, an aide to Ter-Petrosian, told RFE/RL. “A regime which attacked peaceful demonstrators and whose illegal actions left many people dead is using its own crime as a pretext to restrict our people’s right to hold peaceful rallies.”
“This shows that the authorities are terrified by the existing situation and that they admit having no popular support,” he said.
Asked whether Ter-Petrosian and his allies are ready to hold more unsanctioned rallies and risk another confrontation with the police, Zurabian said, “We will find a way of getting around these dictatorial restrictions and organizing rallies.” He did not elaborate.
(Photolur photo: Ter-Petrosian supporters pictured during their last protest in Yerevan.)