By Anush Martirosian
The National Assembly approved on Wednesday changes in Armenia’s Criminal Code which the Council of Europe hopes will lead to the release of opposition members arrested following last year’s presidential election.
The Armenian authorities undertook to amend articles 225 and 300 of the Criminal Code last month as they managed to avert embarrassing sanctions by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in January.
The articles deal with provocation of “mass disorders” and “usurpation of state authority by force” respectively, accusations leveled against the most prominent of the arrested loyalists of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian. In three resolutions on Armenia adopted over the past year, the PACE said that many of these individuals were jailed on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges” and must be set free. The authorities in Yerevan are understood to have pledged to meet this demand before the next PACE session due in late April.
One of the amendments passed by the government-controlled parliament in the second and final reading divided Article 300 into three sections detailing various forms of power usurpation and toughening punishment for some of them. Also changed was a section of Article 225 that carries between six and 12 years for organization of “mass disorders accompanied by murders.”
Law-enforcement authorities can now use the clause only in cases where they believe riot organizers planned to provoke murders. Another amendment sets criminal liability for defiance of police orders to stop an unsanctioned or violent demonstration.
David Harutiunian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs and one of the authors of the amendments, told the parliament on Tuesday that the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has largely endorsed them. Harutiunian said the commission also made several proposals that were incorporated into the final version of the bill backed by 98 members of the 131-strong legislature.
Harutiunian and other Armenian officials have said the adopted changes can be applied retroactively to opposition figures prosecuted on relevant charges. For their part, representatives of Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) have cast doubt on PACE officials’ implicit assurances that the amendments will therefore result in the early release of most of about 60 oppositionists remaining in jail.
The opposition skepticism was echoed on Wednesday by Tigran Torosian, the former parliament speaker and one of six parliamentarians who voted against the bill. “The Council of Europe proposed a revision of the Criminal Code because of several issues,” Torosian told RFE/RL. “I am convinced that those issues will not be solved with these changes.”