Ending a four-day fact-finding visit to the country, Thomas Hammarberg did not rule out a quick release of the nine oppositionists jailed in connection with the unrest and a disputed presidential election that preceded it. He also made clear that the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) is unlikely to impose sanctions on Armenia’s government.
The fate of the jailed loyalists of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian topped the agenda of his meetings with President Serzh Sarkisian and other senior government and law-enforcement officials.
Hammarberg, who also met with Ter-Petrosian, said they had “very detailed discussions” on the matter. “There are still some people in prison because of the connection they have with the March 2008 events,” he told a news conference. “I have discussed these cases with the authorities and appealed for their release.”
“I feel that these people should not be kept in prison because the sentences against them had a political consideration, political dimension behind them,” he said.
Asked whether the individuals regarded by the Armenian opposition and human rights groups as political prisoners could be set freed soon, Hammarberg replied, “There were no replies [from the authorities,] but I have the impression that they are thinking. We will see.”
“I wouldn’t exclude any measures that I hope I have contributed to,” added the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights.
The Armenian authorities arrested more than a hundred Ter-Petrosian loyalists in the wake of the unrest. In three subsequent resolutions on Armenia, the PACE said many of them were jailed for political reasons and demanded their immediate release.
The Sarkisian administration has gradually freed the great majority of these prisoners. Among those remaining behind bars are newspaper editor Nikol Pashinian and former parliament deputy Sasun Mikaelian. Hammarberg was allowed to meet them as well as another jailed oppositionist, Harutiun Urutian, during his trip.
The PACE resolutions also called for an objective and thorough investigation into the circumstances of the March 2008 clashes that left eight opposition protesters and two security personnel dead. Despite the mass arrests, the authorities failed to prosecute anyone in direct connection with those deaths. The Ter-Petrosian-led opposition cites this fact to allege a high-level cover-up of the worst street violence in Armenia’s history.
Hammarberg expressed “deep concern” at Armenian law-enforcement bodies’ failure to solve any of those killings. “The failure of these investigations is very serious because it means in reality that these cases have not been clarified and there is a problem there with impunity,” he said.
Armenia -- President Serzh Sarkisian (R) meets with Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, 21Jan2011.
Hammarberg went on to praise government pledges to reform the Armenian security apparatus and prevent a repeat of such violence in the future. He also said Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian acknowledged that Armenian courts mishandled at least some of the trials of the oppositionsists and that the authorities will seek to improve their “conduct.”
In many of the unrest-related cases, the courts convicted defendants on the basis of claims made by police officers. The PACE strongly condemned this practice. The assembly also threatened to impose sanctions on its Armenian members if the authorities in Yerevan fail to comply with its resolutions in full.
Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian National Congress (HAK) have repeatedly accused the Council of Europe of being too lenient towards the Sarkisian administration. But some top HAK representatives have claimed in recent weeks that the Strasbourg-based organization is now heightening pressure on Yerevan.
“I don’t think that serious sanctions are being considered,” Hammarberg said, referring to the PACE and other Council of Europe structures.
While in Yerevan, the German commissioner also discussed what the Council of Europe sees as a lack of pluralism in Armenia’s broadcast media dominated by TV and radio stations loyal to the government. He said he specifically addressed the authorities’ reluctance to give new licenses to the A1+ and GALA channels.
“I think that the system, as it works today, does not guarantee that pluralism,” Hammarberg said. Still, he stopped short from explicitly urging the authorities to let A1+ resume broadcasts after a nearly decade-long shutdown.
Meanwhile, President Sarkisian was quoted by his press office as telling Hammarberg that “enormous work” has been done by successive Armenian governments to bring Armenia’s political system and human rights practices into conformity with European standards. “At the same time, we are conscious of the fact that we still have a long way to go,” he said.
A statement issued by the office made no mention of the concerns raised by the Council of Europe representative.