By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Astghik Bedevian
The Armenian parliament began debating on Monday a European-backed bill that would ease serious restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed by the government following the bloody suppression of post-election opposition protests in Yerevan.
The government has faced strong pressure from the United States, the European Union and other international bodies to lift the de facto ban on opposition rallies, which took the form of amendments to Armenia’s law on public gatherings.
The bill debated by the National Assembly would rescind or change some of those amendments. It was drawn up on the basis of understandings reached last month by the parliament leadership and representatives of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. In its written opinion made public last week, the commission said the proposed fresh amendments to the law “largely address the concerns” expressed by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In particular, the bill would scrap a clause that allows the Armenian authorities to “temporarily” ban rallies for an unspecified period of time after previous street gatherings resulting in casualties. The authorities said earlier that the ban is necessary for preventing a repeat of the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition supporters protesting against official results of the February 19 presidential election.
The authorities have also agreed to somewhat limit the discretionary authority of the Armenian police and the National Security Service (NSS) to forbid anti-government rallies on the grounds that they pose a threat to “state security, public order, public health and morality.” The two law-enforcement agencies would now be able to impose such bans only if there is “imminent danger of violence or a real threat” to national security.
Organizers of banned rallies would be able to challenge “justified official opinions” of the police or the NSS in court. A court would have to overturn or uphold the ban within 24 hours.
The bill also envisages the restoration of Armenians’ right to hold “spontaneous” street protests without prior application to municipal authorities. But it makes clear that a spontaneous protest can not last for more than six hours.
The main parliament factions loyal to the government said they will vote for the amendments, making their passage a forgone conclusion. Vahan Hovannisian, the parliamentary leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), cited the need to reverse a “step backwards” from democracy and comply with the April 17 resolution on Armenia adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
As well as urging the lifting of the effective rally ban, the PACE demanded that the authorities in Yerevan release political prisoners and allow an independent inquiry into the March 1 clashes that left at least ten people dead. The Strasbourg-based assembly warned that failure to take these measures before its June session could lead to the suspension of the voting rights of its Armenian members.
Despite the positive opinion of Council of Europe experts, the seven deputies representing Zharangutyun, the only opposition party represented in the 131-member parliament, dismissed the amendments as cosmetic. Their skepticism was echoed by a spokesman for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition presidential candidate who led the post-election demonstrations in Yerevan.
Arman Musinian claimed that the authorities are taking no “real steps” to meet the PACE demands. “Repressions against citizens are continuing,” he said. “The have gained new momentum since the [May 2] second congress of the popular movement.”
“Hundreds of citizens are summoned [to police stations] for questioning without warrants,” Musinian told a news conference. “Also questioned are citizens who contributed financially to Ter-Petrosian’s campaign fund. The authorities are trying to terrorize the opposition by all possible means.”
Musinian confirmed that Ter-Petrosian could urge supporters to take to the streets on June 20, three days before the start of the next PACE session, if the authorities continue to ban opposition rallies. “If their common sense does not prevail by that time … we must exercise our constitutional right,” he said.