By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament passed in the second and final reading Wednesday a bill abolishing some of the serious restrictions on freedom of assembly which were imposed following the suppression of post-election opposition protests in Yerevan.
The Armenian 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 that took the form of amendments to a law on public gatherings.
The bill was drawn up on the basis of understandings reached by the parliament leadership and representatives of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission in late April. The latter have said that 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.
“With these changes, the law will not only be brought into conformity with European standards but will also be an improvement over its [more liberal] version that existed before March 17,” parliament speaker Tigran Torosian said before the vote.
Deputies from the Zharangutyun party, the only opposition force represented in the National Assembly, voted against the amendments which they believe are cosmetic. The more radical opposition parties grouped around former President Levon Ter-Petrosian have likewise dismissed them.
One of the adopted amendments scrapped a clause that allowed 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 will 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 will now be able to challenge “justified official opinions” of the police or the NSS in court. A court will have to overturn or uphold the ban within 24 hours.
The bill also restored 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.
It is not clear if President Serzh Sarkisian will sign the bill into law before a big demonstration which the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition plans to hold in Yerevan on June 20. Ter-Petrosian aides have made clear that the rally will go ahead even if it is banned by the authorities.
The planned protest will come three days before the start of the June session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The Strasbourg-based assembly is expected to discuss Yerevan’s compliance with its April resolution that demanded an end to the government crackdown on the opposition and a restoration of civil liberties restricted following the March 1 unrest.