By Ruben Meloyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian authorities have yet to satisfy Council of Europe demands for the release of opposition members arrested and imprisoned for their political activities, a senior official from the Strasbourg-based human rights organization said on Tuesday.
The “urgent release of the persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges” following Armenia’s disputed presidential election is a key requirement of a resolution adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) last month. Although the authorities in Yerevan have pledged to comply with the resolution, only a handful of arrested prominent oppositionists have been released from jail so far. Dozens of others remain under arrest on charges mostly stemming from the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot police and opposition protesters demanding a re-run of the February 19 election.
“My position is that prisoners should be released, which is possible within the framework of Armenia,” Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, deputy secretary general of the Council of Europe, told RFE/RL at the end of a two-day visit to Yerevan.
“I’m still waiting for good news,” she said. “For me, the fact that persons are charged with a criminal offense is no obstacle to the release of prisoners.”
The issue featured large during de Boer-Buquicchio’s meetings with parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian. She also met with the wives of several arrested opposition figures.
President Serzh Sarkisian said on Monday that Armenian law-enforcement bodies and courts should avoid making “political decisions” while investigating what his government calls an opposition attempt to seize power in the wake of the presidential ballot. “No one who committed a grave committed must stay unpunished,” he said. “However, a person must not be sentenced for their political convictions and beliefs.”
Sarkisian did not specify whether he thinks there are any political prisoners among more than 100 Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested as part of the post-election crackdown on the opposition. His remarks were dismissed on Tuesday by arrested opposition politicians’ wives.
“It’s good that he wants criminals to be punished,” said Melissa Brown, the U.S.-born wife of Aleksandr Arzumanian, Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign chief. “We must look at where those criminals are. There are no criminals in our movement. There are only political prisoners. The criminals are elsewhere.”
“Nobody who shot at the people, who committed hooligan acts on March 1 has been punished so far,” Brown told a news conference.
The wife of Miasnik Malkhasian, an opposition parliamentarian, agreed. “I see no real steps on the part of the authorities,” said Anna Malkhasian. “If we are really a Council of Europe member state, we must make sure that nobody is thrown into prison for their political views.”
While expressing concern about the continuing imprisonment of opposition members, de Boer-Buquicchio said the Armenian authorities have shown readiness to meet other PACE demands such as the lifting of serious restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed following the March 1 unrest. She praised the Armenian parliament for adopting relevant legal amendments in the first reading earlier in the day.
The Council of Europe official was also cautiously optimistic about the launch of an independent inquiry into the circumstances of the deadly clashes in Yerevan, another key provision of the PACE resolution. Sarkisian said on Monday that the inquiry will be conducted by an hoc commission to be formed by the parliament dominated by his loyalists.
De Boer-Buquicchio urged Ter-Petrosian to engage in a “constructive dialogue” with the authorities which she said would defuse persisting political tensions in Armenia.