By Karine Kalantarian in Strasbourg
The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) backed down on its threats to impose sanctions against Armenia on Tuesday, citing the Yerevan government's pledge to enact legal amendments that could result in the release of dozens of imprisoned opposition members.
In a further blow to the Armenian opposition, the PACE stopped short of describing those individuals as “political prisoners,” a term used by the assembly’s Monitoring Committee last month.
In a draft resolution submitted to the PACE on December 22, the committee stated that “political prisoners exist in Armenia” and urged the Strasbourg-based assembly to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members. It said the authorities in Yerevan have failed to fully comply with earlier PACE resolutions that demanded the immediate release of all oppositionists arrested on “artificial or politically motivated charges.”
The Monitoring Committee’s two Armenia rapporteurs, John Prescott and Georges Colombier, made significant changes in the proposed resolution after visiting Yerevan and meeting President Serzh Sarkisian and other top officials earlier this month. Its final version overwhelmingly approved by PACE lawmakers says only that supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian “may have been charged and imprisoned for political motivations.”
The resolution emphasized the importance of the Sarkisian administration’s pledge to amend two articles of the Armenian Criminal Code that deal with attempts to “usurp state authority by force” and organize “mass disturbances” and have been used in the prosecution of the most prominent of the jailed oppositionists. The PACE described the pledge as a “signal indicating the readiness of the Armenian authorities to begin to address the concerns of the Assembly in relation to the situation of the persons deprived of their liberty in relation to the events of 1 and 2 March 2008.”
The Armenian authorities maintain that the clashes, which left ten people dead, were part of the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition’s attempts to stage a coup d’etat following the February 2008 presidential election. Seven Ter-Petrosian associates went on trial on corresponding charges last month.
In a separate explanatory note to the PACE, Prescott and Colombier cast doubt on the credibility of those charges. “We have not received evidence that the seven opposition leaders organized violent actions with premeditation with the aim to usurp the state power, for which they have been charged under Article 300,” they said.
The statement said Prescott and Colombier urged President Sarkisian to declare an amnesty for all arrested oppositionists. “The President indicated that he did not rule out the possibility of a declaration of amnesty at a later stage,” it said.
Sarkisian has so far agreed to pardon 28 individuals who were arrested in connection with the March 1 clashes and admitted their guilt in separate petitions to the head of state. Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) says most of these men have no links to the opposition and were jailed for looting shops and burning cars.
Still, the PACE welcomed the individual pardons. “The Assembly expresses its expectation that this process will continue unabated,” read its latest resolution.
The resolution instructed the Monitoring Committee to continue to examine the Armenian authorities’ compliance with PACE demands and “propose any further action to be taken by the Assembly” at its next session due in late April.
The committee’s chairman, Serhiy Holovaty, said Yerevan still has a long way to go in addressing the Council of Europe concerns. “Three debates, three resolutions, and only in December, as our co-rapporteurs say, have we achieved progress,” he said. “But it is limited.”
David Harutiunian, head of the Armenian delegation at the PACE, welcomed the resolution and said the government will make every effort to honor its pledges. “I am trying to look at the situation optimistically,” Harutiunian told reporters. “The step we are taking is really important.”
But Levon Zurabian, a top HAK representative who was also in Strasbourg, denounced the PACE for its perceived leniency toward the Armenian government. “No matter how much we try to spread alternative views, since people here are quite uninformed about what’s going on in Armenia, the views of the [PACE] majority depend on what the rapporteurs say,” he told RFE/RL. “And that calls the Council of Europe’s credibility into question. In our view, Prescott and Colombier presented a one-sided and false information about processes taking place in Armenia.”
“I am convinced -- and we have warned Council of Europe structures about that -- that the Armenian authorities are stalling for time,” said Zurabian. “They are doing everything to keep people in prison as long as possible.”
(Council of Europe photo)