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By Emil Danielyan
The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights has again expressed serious concern at the continuing imprisonment of dozens of Armenian opposition members and supporters on what he considers dubious charges.

“The situation with respect to the persons deprived of their liberty in connection with the 1-2 March events continues to be a source of serious concern. There is an urgent need to deploy the requisite political will to achieve a solution,” Thomas Hammarberg said in a report issued ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of a key Council of Europe body monitoring the fulfillment of Armenia’s membership commitments to the organization.

The Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) was due to discuss Yerevan’s compliance with PACE resolutions demanding the immediate release of all opposition members arrested on “seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges.” The resolutions, adopted in April and June, also urged the Armenian authorities to restore civil liberties and allow an independent inquiry into the post-election unrest.

Visiting Yerevan in late July, PACE President Lluis Maria de Puig warned that Armenia’s continued membership in the Strasbourg-based watchdog will be at serious risk if the authorities fail to free all political prisoners by next October. Only a handful of oppositionists have been set freed since then. Despite that, the political situation in Armenia was not included on the agenda of the PACE’s autumn session, which began its work in Strasbourg on Monday.

Contrary to expectations, the Monitoring Committee did not discuss the issue in detail when it last met in Paris on September 11. The committee was expected to look into Hammarberg’s report on Tuesday.

“The Commissioner wishes to underline that it is unacceptable to continue to hold in detention or to convict - even to non-custodial sentences - anyone solely because of their political beliefs or non-violent activities,” reads the reports based on Hammarberg’s July fact-finding trip to Armenia.

Hammarberg said he is “particularly concerned” about the fate of seven prominent opposition figures, among them three members of the Armenian parliament, remaining in pre-trial detention on charges of plotting to overthrow the government in the wake of the February 19 presidential election. “The Commissioner's concern is exacerbated by the fact that in several of those cases, the relevant court ordered further two-month extensions as recently as early September 2008,” he said.

Hammarberg also questioned the credibility of these and other grave accusations that have underpinned the Armenian government’s post-election crackdown on the opposition. He cited a controversial directive that was issued by the head of Armenia’s Special Investigative Service, Andranik Mirzoyan, in March and subsequently made public by the opposition. Mirzoyan ordered regional prosecutors to round up local participants of the post-election rallies in Yerevan, wiretap their phones and interrogate their neighbors.

Hammarberg said the fact that the prosecutors were told to collect information on opposition supporters, rather than specific acts, “raises questions about the nature and the intent of the investigation.”

The Council of Europe official at the same time praised the authorities in Yerevan for seemingly accepting his proposal to set up an independent body tasked with investigating circumstances of the March 1 clashes that left ten people dead. “The establishment of a group of experts tasked with carrying out a comprehensive, independent, impartial, transparent inquiry, which would be perceived as credible by the whole population of Armenia, appears to be within reach,” he said.

A senior pro-government lawmaker said last week that the government camp and the opposition will be equally represented in the body. International experts will also participate in the inquiry, he said.

(Photolur photo: Thomas Hammarberg.)
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