By Ruzanna Stepanian and Karine Kalantarian
The governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) insisted on Friday that there are no political prisoners in the country and hit out at Western officials for claiming the opposite. A party spokesman also said the domestic political situation is “stabilizing,” shrugging off the Armenian opposition’s efforts to a mount a new campaign of anti-government street protests.
“There is nothing [opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian] can do apart from escalating the situation with radical steps,” Eduard Sharmazanov told RFE/RL. “But I think the political situation in Armenia will not change as a result. The public has seen in the past 100 days that we have a resolute president who has raised hopes for reforms.”
Ter-Petrosian and his associates cite the Armenian authorities’ failure to release most of more than 100 opposition supporters arrested in the wake of last February’s disputed presidential election as the main reason for the resumption of their rallies in Yerevan. They consider the 70 or so oppositionists remaining in jail political prisoners.
Sharmazanov claimed that the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition has suffered a “fiasco” and can not seriously threaten President Serzh Sarkisian. “As for who is a political prisoner and who is not, let me reserve judgment on this question until court rulings,” he said. “Being a politician doesn’t mean you can’t commit a crime.”
“The era of political persecutions in Armenia is gone,” he added. “Under this government and in this society it is impossible to have political persecutions … I almost rule out the existence of political prisoners in Armenia.”
The United States, the Council of Europe and other international bodies do not seem to share this view as they continue to demand the release of individuals that they believe were jailed for their political views and activities. The president of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), Lluis Maria de Puig, warned during a visit to Yerevan this week that failure to free them by mid-September would put Armenia’s membership in the respected human rights organization at serious risk.
“Serzh Sarkisian has promised to improve things in the next five years, rather than 100 days,” Sharmazanov said, reacting to the warning. “Our distinguished European partners should realize that democracy is a developing process and it is impossible to solve problems facing our country within one, two or hundred days. Especially after an attempted coup d’etat.”
The HHK spokesman, who is also a member of the Armenian parliament, referred to the post-election opposition demonstrations in Yerevan that were suppressed by security forces on March 1-2. At least ten people were killed and more than 100 others injured as a result.
“People are not tried and sentenced en masse,” said Sharmazanov. “This is evidenced by the fact that there are people who have been let go. We just need a little patience.”
Arshak Banuchian, the deputy director of Yerevan’s Matenadaran museum of ancient manuscripts, became on Friday morning the latest Ter-Petrosian supporter to regain freedom. Prosecutors decided to release him pending trial the previous evening.
Banuchian was arrested in late March on charges of inciting and participating in “mass disturbances” and bribing voters in the southern Vayots Dzor region to vote for Ter-Petrosian during the February 19 election. The renowned scholar insisted that the accusations are politically motivated as he left Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison.
“I have spent time here for my civic attitude,” he told RFE/RL. “If the authorities were consistent, they would have jailed half of our nation. This is so ludicrous.”
Banuchian claimed that law-enforcement officials repeatedly offered to free him if he implicates opposition leaders in giving him the money which he allegedly spent on vote bribes. “For four months they were telling me, ‘Name people and you’ll get out,’” he said.
“They’ve also been looking for bribed voters for the past four months. I guess they should post an ad in a newspaper saying that they are looking for bribe recipients,” Banuchian added with sarcasm.
(Photolur photo: Eduard Sharmazanov.)