By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament opened on Monday debates on a controversial government bill on rallies and other public gatherings which critics say is designed to quash street protests planned by the opposition.
Under the bill organizers of such events will only have to notify relevant authorities in advance, instead of seeking their permission as is required by the existing government rules. However, it also gives the law-enforcement structures sweeping powers to “forcibly discontinue” demonstrations in case “violations of the law.”
That includes violent incidents and calls for a “violent overthrow” of government. Also mentioned is the sale of alcohol to demonstrators, unheard of in Armenia.
Presenting the draft legislation to lawmakers, Justice Minister David Harutiunian said it is in tune with a clause in the Armenian constitution that guarantees everyone freedom of assembly.
But the opposition claims the opposite, saying that the restrictions allow the authorities to disrupt anti-government protests through agents provocateurs.
Harutiunian declined to specify how exactly the police and other security forces would be able to disperse crowds. “I think that law-enforcement bodies of the state know possible ways of forcibly ending an event that is being held illegally,” he said, replying to a lawmaker’s question.
The bill drafted by the government earlier this year is likely to be promptly passed by the National Assembly by mid-April. The continuing opposition boycott of parliament sessions means there will be no heated debates on its controversial provisions.
The opposition minority, represented by the Artarutyun bloc and the National Unity Party, says the law will be enacted in time for the start of mass demonstrations in Yerevan against President Robert Kocharian. Both factions claim that the authorities will use it to crack down on their opponents. The authorities deny this.
The draft is currently examined by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe which monitors legislative reform in Armenia and has also drawn the European Union’s attention. The EU’s chief representative to the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, discussed it among other issues when he met with the parliament leaders in Yerevan last week. Interestedly, Talvitie made a vague reference to the bill when asked by journalists to comment on mounting political tensions in Armenia.