By Ruben Meloyan and Emil Danielyan
A senior U.S. official in charge of promoting democracy around the world ended on Wednesday a two-day visit to Armenia during which he pressed its government to restore civil liberties and “promptly” release opposition members arrested following last February’s disputed presidential election.
“We hope Armenia gets back on a democratic path and stays on that path,” David Kramer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said after talks with Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and other senior Armenian officials.
“We recognize that there will be ups and downs in the future as well,” Kramer told a news conference. “What we hope to see is that those ups significantly outweigh any future downs.”
The Armenian government has been under pressure from the United States and other Western powers to end its post-election crackdown on the opposition that involved mass arrests and the use of lethal force against opposition demonstrators demanding a re-run of the February 19 vote. U.S. officials have repeatedly urged the government to release all political prisoners, abolish severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and engage in dialogue with the opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
They have said such steps are essential for the release of $236 million in additional economic assistance to Armenia promised by Washington. The five-year aid program was effectively frozen after the deadly suppression on March 1 of Ter-Petrosian’s street protests against official vote results which the opposition considers fraudulent.
According to Kramer, the authorities in Yerevan have still not fully addressed the U.S. concerns even if they refrained from using force against thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters who rallied in the Armenian capital last Friday. “There is a lot that remains to be done,” he said. “I think that’s to be expected of a government that is still rather new.”
The U.S. official, who also met Ter-Petrosian, singled out the continuing imprisonment of dozens of opposition leaders and activists, saying that he had “extensive discussions” on the issue with Prime Minister Sarkisian as well as Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian and Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian.
“We did express concerns that the vast majority of people detained in connection with the March 1-2 events were from the opposition,” Kramer said. “And so we reiterated our hope that people detained for expressing their political views would in fact be released promptly.”
Sarkisian insisted at the meeting with Kramer that none of the oppositionists arrested in the crackdown is facing a prison sentence for their political views or activities. According to the government’s press service, he also said that Armenian courts are independent and objective enough to judge whether the charges brought by prosecutors are substantiated. Most of them stem from the March 1 unrest which left at least ten people dead.
The local courts have sided with prosecutors in virtually all of the relevant cases adjudicated by them so far. In the latest example of that, Armenia’s Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld a lower court’s decision to sentence an opposition supporter to three and a half years in prison for his involvement in the “mass disturbances.” The court also threw out an appeal lodged by another oppositionist jailed for four years on the same charge.
Prosecutor-General Hovsepian briefed Kramer on Tuesday on the course of the ongoing criminal investigation into what the Armenian authorities call an opposition attempt to stage a coup d’etat. A statement by the Office of the Prosecutor-General quoted Hovsepian as saying that Armenian law-enforcement authorities are having “certain difficulties” ascertaining the precise circumstances in which eight civilians and two riot troops were killed in the worst street violence in the country’s history.
None of the arrested oppositionists was charged in connection with those deaths. Nor have investigators prosecuted any of the police officers involved in the March 1 clashes.
“There were ten people killed on March 1-2,” Kramer told journalists. “We would like to see those responsible for those deaths brought to justice.”
Kramer said the authorities should also enable the independent TV station A1+, which was controversially forced off the air in 2002, to resume broadcasts and authorize Ter-Petrosian’s next rally scheduled for July 4. He commended them for not breaking up last Friday’s rally that was not sanctioned by the Yerevan municipality.
During his meetings with Armenian officials and the ensuing news conferences Kramer also condemned Armenian state television for making anti-Semitic comments in its continuing verbal attacks on Ter-Petrosian. Citing the Jewish origin of Ter-Petrosian’s Russian-born wife Lyudmila, the state-controlled Public Television as well as some pro-government newspapers have alleged in recent weeks that the opposition leader’s bid to return to power was part of a “Judaic-Masonic” conspiracy against Armenia.
“For a country with a proud history of relations with the Jewish community and with the state of Israel, we made clear that anti-Semitism has no place in Armenia,” said Kramer. “And based on the reaction that we heard from people in the government, it is my hope that there will be an immediate end to such rhetoric.”
The Armenian premier, according to his office, described that rhetoric as “extremely condemnable and inadmissible.” Justice Minister Danielian told the visiting U.S. official, however, that Public Television’s controversial reports “can not be unequivocally deemed anti-Semitic.”