By Anna Saghabalian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Echoing statements by the European Union, the Council of Europe urged the Armenian authorities on Monday to allow an independent investigation into the post-election violence in Yerevan, release political prisoners and scrap their controversial restrictions on freedom of assembly.
Senior diplomats representing the Strasbourg-based organization’s decision-making Committee of Ministers said that is essential for ending Armenia’s political crisis sparked by last month’s presidential election and putting the country back on a “democratic track.”
The diplomats, who make up the committee’s so-called Ago Group monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its Council of Europe commitments, spent the past two days meeting senior government and law-enforcement officials in Yerevan. They also visited the basement jail of the National Security Service (NSS) where some of more than 100 arrested opposition leaders and activists are being kept.
The diplomats’ resulting recommendations are essentially identical with those of the European Union. In two separate statements issued early this month, the EU’s Slovenian presidency said that in order to defuse the crisis, the Armenian government should engage in dialogue with opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and release all of his supporters arrested for their political activities. The statements also called for an independent investigation into the March 1 deadly clashes between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters demanding a re-run of the February 19 presidential election.
“We stand behind the call for an independent and impartial investigation of the events of March 1,” Per Sjogren, head of the Ago Group, told a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. He said the Council of Europe is ready to assist in such an inquiry but stressed that it should be conducted by a local body enjoying “wide trust among the Armenian population.”
The vast majority of the arrested oppositionists are facing lengthy prison sentences on coup charges stemming from the March 1 violence that left at least eight people dead. Like the EU, the Council of Europe body indicated its belief that at least some of them are political prisoners.
“We stand behind the calls from many international organizations that those who were arrested since March 1 in conjunction with political activities should be released,” Sjogren said. He also criticized the recent amendments to Armenia’s law on rallies that allow the NSS and the police to ban further anti-government protests practically at will.
The authorities say the restrictions are necessary for preventing a repeat of the March 1 unrest. Ter-Petrosian and his allies insist that the de facto ban on opposition demonstrations is unconstitutional. Human Rights Watch, the respected New York-based watchdog, said on Friday that the amendments run counter to the European Convention on Human Rights that guarantees freedom of assembly.
According to Sjogren, the so-called Venice Commission, which scrutinizes legislation in Council of Europe member states, has arrived at a similar conclusion. “The Venice Commission has done an urgent analysis of these revisions, and there are a number of critical points [in its report,]” he said. “We have forwarded this report to the minister of justice and the government today.”
Although the Swedish diplomat described as “positive” the Armenian government’s response to his fact-finding team’s calls, it was not clear whether they were accepted in full or in part.
Oskanian told reporters that the Ago Group’s proposals are “aimed at improving the situation” and will therefore be discussed by the government. “I am very satisfied with the content of our meeting and am confident that we will soon feel the positive results of the visit by the Ago Group,” he said without elaborating.
However, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian was reported to effectively reject at least two of the recommendations. Danielian was quoted by his press service as insisting at a separate meeting with the visiting Council of Europe representatives that none of the jailed oppositionists was arrested for their political views and activities. He also defended the controversial restrictions on public gatherings in Armenia, saying that they are less stringent that those existing in some European nations.
The Ago Group members also met with Ter-Petrosian on Sunday. “They discussed the situation in the wake of the election and possible ways out,” a spokesman for Armenia’s former president, Arman Musinian, told RFE/RL. “The first president reaffirmed his commitment to the proposals made by the European Union presidency.”
“We mostly listened to him [to understand] how sees the situation in the country, including the elections, events of March 1, and other related issues,” Sjogren said.
(Photolur photo: Per Sjogren.)