By Hrach Melkumian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s parliament will abolish by the end of next month a legal loophole that allows the execution of individuals convicted of terrorism and other grave crimes and has put the country at odds with the Council of Europe, its deputy speaker, Tigran Torosian, was quoted as saying on Friday.
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, meanwhile, expressed hope that the Armenian authorities will fulfill this all of the commitments which they assumed when joining the pan-European organization in January 2001.
According to the parliament’s press service, Torosian told visiting senior officials from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), that the National Assembly will ratify Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which completely outlaws capital punishment in peacetime, by September 25. The move would strike down the controversial legal clause that allows death sentences in exceptional circumstances.
The clause was appended by the previous legislature last April to Armenia’s new criminal code that abolishes the death penalty in accordance with one of Yerevan’s key Council of Europe commitments. Lawmakers made the exception to primarily allow courts to sentence to death six jailed gunmen that seized the chamber in the bloody October 1999 raid. The Council of Europe rejected it as unacceptable.
In a September 2002 resolution, the PACE warned Armenia to sign up to Protocol No. 6 by June 2003 or face the possibility of political sanctions. The deadline was eventually extended by six months.
Leaders of virtually all Armenian parliament factions assured the visiting PACE officials, Jerzy Jaskiernia and Rene Andre, on Thursday that they will vote for the document’s ratification. The only faction opposed to that is the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc led by Stepan Demirchian and Aram Sarkisian, whose close relatives were among eight senior officials killed in the parliament massacre. Meeting with Jaskiernia and Andre, Demirchian complained that the PACE attaches more importance to the death penalty than to other issues such as free elections.
“Armenia is determined to fulfill its obligations to the Council of Europe and continue its European integration,” speaker Baghdasarian said in a statement, adding that he hopes the process will be completed by the end of 2003. He said the parliament will set up an ad hoc commission that will deal with Armenia’s integration into various European structures.
Speaking to journalists in Yerevan, Jaskiernia said he is encouraged by the assurances given by Armenian leaders. He said the PACE will discuss the status of Armenia’s membership commitments in January.
Another outstanding issue in Armenia’s dealings with the Council of Europe is the passage of a law on alternative service for individuals refusing to serve in the army on religious grounds. Most of them are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group. The Armenian government says it will legalize the group after the passage of the legislation, and in the meantime continues to prosecute its members refusing compulsory military service.
Jaskiernia and Andre discussed the issue with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian on Friday. Markarian was quoted by his press office as saying that his government will “fully” comply with the Council of Europe requirements.
The comments contrasted sharply with the premier’s calls last year for a tougher restrictions on activities of “dangerous sects” challenging the supremacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. “Security of the state and the people is more important than some [international] treaties,” he told top government and law-enforcement officials in September 2002. “We will try not to contradict Council of Europe demands. But up to a point.”
The importance of Armenia’s hard-won membership of the Strasbourg-based organization is now recognized by many senior members of Markarian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). “The world is governed by certain structures, and the Council of Europe is one of the most important of them,” the HHK’s parliamentary leader, Galust Sahakian, told RFE/RL. “Armenia would find itself in an extremely difficult position if it were to leave the Council of Europe.”
(Photolur photo: Jaskiernia, left, and Andre after talks with Armenian officials.)