By Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian authorities will risk “catastrophic” consequences if they fail to release all political prisoners and meet other Council of Europe demands by next October, the president of the Strasbourg-based organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) said on Thursday.
Lluis Maria de Puig issued the stark warning on the second day of his visit to Armenia aimed at assessing its government’s compliance with the PACE resolutions on the dramatic post-election developments in the country.
The PACE demanded in April that the authorities immediately release all opposition members arrested on “seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges,” restore freedom of assembly and allow an independent inquiry into the March 1 clashes in Yerevan. In a follow-up resolution adopted late last month, the 47-nation assembly reiterated these demands, giving the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian six more months to satisfy them in full.
In an interview with RFE/RL, de Puig warned that the PACE could impose political sanctions on Yerevan at its next session due in October if it finds no major progress on the question of opposition detainees. “We need guarantees by September 11 that resolutions can be implemented in this country,” he said. “If we conclude on September 11 that no important progress has been made in Armenia, there will be a very scandalous situation.”
September 11 is the day when Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner on human rights, is expected to report to the PACE’s Monitoring Committee on whether Yerevan is complying with the resolutions. “The response to our recommendations is still unsatisfactory,” Hammarberg said at the end of a fact-finding trip to Yerevan on July 15.
According to de Puig, Hammarberg’s failure to report major progress would create a situation that “can be catastrophic for the country.” “Armenia can not wait until January because things will perhaps be decided before January,” he said. “That is why it is important that Armenia shows very quickly that it is complying with the PACE resolutions.”
President Sarkisian clearly did not share the PACE chief’s sense of urgency as he spoke at a news conference on Monday. He indicated that the Armenian authorities are not anxious to free the individuals considered political prisoners by the opposition and to fully comply with the PACE resolution by January.
“If a certain provision [of the resolution] is not implemented by January, I don’t think we will have a calamity as a result,” said Sarkisian. “Of course, it is desirable to solve our problems as soon as possible. But it is a bit wrong to set some deadlines and say that all those problems must be solved by then.”
Meeting with de Puig on Thursday, Sarkisian insisted that no oppositionist has been or will be jailed on baseless charges and that Armenia is “determined” to implement the PACE resolutions. “I strongly believe that there is no alternative to Armenia’s democratization, and we will consistently follow that path,” he said.
De Puig also expressed concern about the fate of several dozen opposition supporters remaining in prison on charges mostly stemming from the March 1 unrest in Yerevan as he met with Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian on Wednesday. According to the Armenian government’s press office, he said the Council of Europe can not tolerate the existence of political prisoners in any of its member states.
“This does not apply to individuals who committed violent crimes,” de Puig was quoted as saying. “Those detainees who have nothing to do with those crimes should be released,” he added.
Prime Minister Sarkisian assured him that the Armenian authorities “fully understand the seriousness of the issue.” “It is obvious to everyone that politicization of trials is extremely dangerous for the country,” he said. “Therefore, everything is being done to ensure that no legal norm is violated in Armenia.”
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian claimed the opposite when he met de Puig later on Wednesday. He accused the authorities of doing nothing to address the PACE concerns.
“Thus, the authorities have no intention to restore democracy in Armenia and are treating the Council of Europe demands with disdain,” Ter-Petrosian’s Popular Movement said in a statement on Thursday. “In this situation, the Armenian people are left with no choice but to mount a powerful wave of protest and defiance with the aim of reclaiming their trampled rights.” The statement urged Armenians to “actively” participate in Ter-Petrosian’s next Yerevan rally scheduled for August 1.
In a related development, law-enforcement authorities released on Thursday a well-known opposition supporter accused of plotting a coup d’etat and inciting “mass disturbances.” Arshak Banuchian, deputy director of Yerevan’s famous Matenadaran institute of ancient manuscripts, was not cleared of what he sees as trumped-up charges and may still go on trial.
Another, more prominent, opposition figure, Ararat Zurabian, was transferred from a Yerevan prison to a heart clinic the previous night after being diagnosed with a serious cardiac disease. Zurabian is the chairman of the Armenian Pan-National Movement, a party that governed the country from 1990-1998.