By Tatevik Lazarian
President Serzh Sarkisian paved the way on Thursday for the launch of an independent inquiry into the deadly post-election unrest in Yerevan, forming an investigative body in which Armenia’s main pro-government and opposition forces will have equal representation.
Sarkisian’s office said the main mission of the five-member Fact-Finding Group of Experts will be to collect information that will shed more light on the causes of the March 1 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces. It said that information will help an ad hoc commission of the Armenian parliament to determine the “legitimacy” of police actions and to ascertain the precise circumstances in which ten people were killed on that day.
The group’s creation is the result of an opposition boycott of the parliamentary inquiry launched in June and pressure exerted on the Armenian authorities by the Council of Europe. Armenia’s two main opposition forces refused to join the parliamentary commission on the grounds that it is dominated by pro-government lawmakers.
Under an executive order signed by Sarkisian, the opposition Armenian National Congress led by Levon Ter-Petrosian and the Zharangutyun party of Raffi Hovannisian will each name one members of the group. Two other members will be nominated by Armenia’s governing coalition loyal to the president. The remaining fifth member will represent the state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian.
The presidential order stipulates that the group members not chosen by Harutiunian must have ample experience in jurisprudence and can not be affiliated with any party, hold government positions or be members of parliament. They will have the right to engage local and foreign experts in the probe.
More importantly, the commission will be able to obtain information relating to the March 1 clashes from “any state or local government body or any of their officials” and to tell “relevant state bodies” to conduct forensic tests and examinations. It can also question individuals who played a part in the unrest but only with their consent.
The group is supposed to present its findings to the parliamentary commission which will then evaluate them in a separate report. Sarkisian’s directive sets no time frames for their submission.
The Ter-Petrosian-led alliance and Zharangutyun did not immediately react to the potentially significant development. They said earlier that they are ready, in principle, to join in the new inquiry.
The launch of the independent and parliamentary probes reflects a lack of domestic and Western trust in the ongoing criminal investigation into the post-election violence that has been accompanied by mass arrests of opposition members. Law-enforcement bodies conducting it have stuck to government claims that the unrest was the result of a coup plot hatched by Ter-Petrosian ahead of the February 19 presidential election.
The official version of events is now questioned not only by the opposition but some lawmakers affiliated with Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its coalition partners. Rafik Petrosian, the Republican chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, is one of them.
“Who shot [on March 1] and at whose orders?” Petrosian said. “Who struck first? The opposition or the authorities? Who is to blame for that? The fact-finding group should find answers to these questions.” The Armenian president’s decision to form it was therefore a “necessary step,” he said.
(Photolur photo: The street junction in the center of Yerevan around which thousands of opposition protesters built barricades and clashed with security forces on March 1.)