By Emil Danielyan and Astghik Bedevian
Europe’s two leading human rights watchdogs have expressed serious concern about the Armenian authorities’ recently enacted legal amendments that effectively banned further anti-government rallies in the country.
The National Assembly hastily passed the controversial amendments to an Armenian law on street gatherings on March 17, four days before the end of a state of emergency imposed by President Robert Kocharian in the wake of Armenia’s disputed presidential election. They were closely examined by experts from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) shortly afterwards.
"On the basis of a preliminary assessment, the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR Expert Panel on Freedom of Assembly do not consider the proposed amendments to be acceptable, to the extent that they restrict further the right of assembly in a significant fashion," they said in a joint statement released late Wednesday.
The two bodies had submitted a detailed analysis of the amendments to the leadership of the Armenian parliament late last week. Its findings were high on the agenda of an ensued visit to Yerevan by members of a more influential Council of Europe body monitoring the fulfillment of Armenia’s membership commitments to the Strasbourg-based organization. Diplomats making up the so-called Ago Group pressed Armenian leaders to accept the Venice Commission’s and ODIHR’s recommendations in addition to engaging in dialogue with the opposition and releasing political prisoners.
Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian assured the visiting diplomats that he and other senior Armenian lawmakers are ready to discuss those recommendations with European experts “in the second half of April.” The Venice Commission and the ODIHR said that the talks have already been scheduled for April 15-16.
However, Rafik Petrosian, chairman of the Armenian parliament’s committee on legal affairs, made it clear on Thursday that the amendments will not be revised anytime soon despite pressure from the Europeans. “These changes will not be repealed in the near future because they are important for the security of our state and people and for public order,” Petrosian told RFE/RL. “When a person’s life is in danger their political rights can not be fully protected,” he said.
The Armenian authorities say that the restrictions on freedom of assembly are necessary for preventing a repeat of the March 1 clashes between security forces and opposition supporters protesting against official results of the February 19 election that gave victory to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. At least seven civilians and one police officer were killed in those clashes.
Sarkisian is due to be sworn in as Armenia’s new president on April 9. The Armenian opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian has pledged to continue to challenge the legitimacy of his controversial election win. It has also dismissed the changes in the law on rallies as unconstitutional.
The law until now allowed municipal authorities to ban rallies and 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,” effectively giving the two law-enforcement bodies the discretionary power to outlaw anti-government protests.
In their joint analysis sent to the National Assembly on March 28, the Venice Commission and the ODIHR said this provision is “excessive” and must be amended in a way that would allow Armenian courts to quash police or NSS bans. They also called for the repeal of another, more significant, amendment that 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.
The European watchdogs said this provision “greatly increases the potential for arbitrary restrictions” and enables security forces to disperse “an assembly where the authorities themselves have used excessive force resulting in the loss of life.” “In addition, it must be emphasized that violence by a minority of participants should not automatically result in the dispersal of the entire event, and the Police and National Security Service must always distinguish between violent and non-violent participants,” they said.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch made a similar point when it urged the Armenian government to lift the effective ban on opposition rallies last Friday. “The new restrictions effectively punish peaceful demonstrators for the violence that took place on March 1,” its Europe and Central Asia director, Holly Cartner, said in a statement.