By Karine Kalantarian
A Council of Europe body monitoring legislative reforms in the organization’s member states has concluded that a controversial Armenian government bill on rallies and other public gatherings fails to meet the European standards, it emerged on Thursday.
Natalia Voutova, the Yerevan-based representative of the Council of Europe secretary general, said the so-called Venice Commission has closely examined the bill and believes that it runs counter to a key provision of the European Convention on Human Rights signed by Armenia.
The findings of the commission were unveiled at a roundtable discussion on the issue organized by the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They were angrily denounced by Tigran Torosian, the deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament and one of the key backers of the legislation. Torosian accused the Venice Commission of making a politically motivated decision.
“I find this unacceptable. This is a political position linked with this situation,” he said, implying that the Council of Europe is siding with the Armenian opposition in its standoff with the government.
Opposition leaders have repeatedly rejected the bill drafted by the Armenian Justice Ministry, saying that it would unfairly restrict citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly and is aimed at stifling their campaign of street protests against President Robert Kocharian. Their concerns are shared by some local non-governmental organizations.
“This is a law befitting an authoritarian system,” Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee told the discussion.
Under the bill in question organizers of street protests will only have to notify relevant authorities in advance, instead of seeking their permission as is required by the existing government rules. However, law-enforcement authorities would at the same time get sweeping powers to “forcibly discontinue” demonstrations in case of “violations of the law.” That includes violent incidents and calls for a “violent overthrow” of government.
The bill was rejected by the Venice Commission despite undergoing some changes after its passage in the first reading by the parliament earlier this month. The amended version was also criticized by Jeremy McBride, a senior expert from the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
“Although the current draft is now much more acceptable, it continues to be problematic in the approach taken to authorization/notification since there is still no room for spontaneous mass events,” McBride said in a written analysis circulated by the OSCE this week. He added that “there continues to be no sense that this is a legitimate activity subject only to concerns about the maintenance of public order.”