By Armen Zakarian
The Armenian authorities have asked the Council of Europe to extend its June 2003 deadline for the complete abolition of the death penalty in Armenia, government sources said on Saturday.
The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) warned last September that it may suspend Armenia’s hard-won membership in the body unless the latter scraps a controversial legal provision allowing the execution of five gunmen that staged a massacre in the Armenian parliament in October 1999. The exception was attached to Armenia’s recently approved new criminal code that bans capital in peacetime.
In a resolution, the PACE said it runs counter to the Armenian government’s pledge to remove the death penalty from its books fully and unconditionally, a key condition for the country’s acceptance into the Strasbourg-based club of European democracies. The assembly told Yerevan to remove the clause before its summer session which begins on June 23.
The issue, highly sensitive in Armenia, appears to have topped the agenda of low-profile talks earlier this week between Armenian leaders and Jerzy Jaskiernia, a visiting PACE legislator who monitors the fulfillment of the country’s membership commitments. Senior sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials asked for a one-year extension of the deadline.
Armenia’s outgoing parliament, controlled by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK), has repeatedly rejected any clemency for former journalist Nairi Hunanian and four other gunmen that had seized it in October 1999, killing then parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and six other officials. The HHK, which won the May 25 parliamentary elections, is unlikely to change its stance.
The death penalty exception is also backed by the Artarutyun bloc, Armenia’s main opposition group. The bloc is led by the late speaker’s son Stepan Demirchian and the slain prime minister’s brother, Aram Sarkisian.
“Our position has not changed,” Demirchian told RFE/RL. “We believe that the abolition of the death penalty would be premature in Armenia.”