By Ruzanna Stepanian, Tigran Avetisian and Anush Martirosian
Armenia’s leadership made what appeared to be last-ditch efforts to stave off embarrassing sanctions by the Council of Europe on Thursday as it held talks with visiting senior representatives of the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
John Prescott and Georges Colombier, rapporteurs of the PACE’s Monitoring Committee, arrived in Yerevan less than two weeks before the Strasbourg-based assembly is to decide whether to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members.
The Monitoring Committee urged the PACE last month to impose such sanctions, saying that Yerevan has failed to fully comply with its April and June 2008 resolutions on the post-election developments in Armenia. The resolutions demanded, among other things, the immediate release of dozens of opposition members arrested on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.” The committee described them as “political prisoners.”
Prescott and Colombier met President Serzh Sarkisian and other senior Armenian officials and made no public statements during the one-day trip. Sarkisian was quoted by his office as telling them that he is committed to “further deepening democracy” in Armenia. He praised the Council of Europe’s role in the democratization of his country’s political system.
“The president of the republic reaffirmed the Armenian authorities’ determination to implement the provisions of the [PACE] resolutions,” Sarkisian’s office said in a statement. No further details were reported.
Artur Baghdasarian, secretary of Armenia’s National Security Council, insisted at a separate meeting with the rapporteurs that the Sarkisian administration made “substantial progress” in complying with those resolutions. Baghdasarian, according to his press service, warned that PACE sanctions could “remove the country from the path of reforms.”
The parliamentary leader of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Galust Sahakian, implied separately that the prospect of such sanctions will not force the government to release the 60 or so oppositionists remaining in jail. Yerevan will not be “distressed” if Armenian lawmakers’ right to vote at the PACE is suspended, he said.
“Of course we would love to see the PACE not impose sanctions on Armenia,” Sahakian told a news conference. “Having said that, we must not make concession’s at the expense of the country’s security.”
Prescott and Colombier met Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian earlier in the day to discuss the fate of the jailed oppositionists and, in particular, the seven prominent figures who went on a collective trial last month. The defendants, among them three opposition parliamentarians, stand accused of organizing the March 1 clashes with security forces in Yerevan in a bid to “usurp state power.”
A spokeswoman for Hovsepian, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL that the chief prosecutor insisted that his investigators have sufficient evidence in support of the accusations. She said Hovsepian also briefed the PACE officials on other details of the continuing criminal investigation into the clashes and the precise circumstances in which eight civilians were killed on that day. He said the prosecutors still do not know who killed them, according to Truzian.
The deadly unrest is also investigated by the recently formed Fact-Finding Group of Experts, a supposedly independent body in which the government and opposition camps are equally represented. Prescott and Colombier met with the five members of the group as well.
Meanwhile, a group of relatives and supporters of the arrested oppositionists picketed the Council of Europe office in Yerevan on Thursday to demand their release and warn the PACE against softening its stance on the issue. “We are demanding that the organization of which Armenia is a member be principled, intransigent and just with regard to its own decisions,” said Aram Manukian, one of the organizers of the protest.
Vladimir Karapetian, the foreign policy spokesman for the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), insisted that the authorities have failed to comply with the PACE resolutions. “I think that on their return to Strasbourg the rapporteurs must make an adequate evaluation of the situation in Armenia,” Karapetian told RFE/RL.
The rapporteurs held no meetings with opposition leaders in Yerevan this time around. They were due to return to Strasbourg the next morning.