By Armen Zakarian
Senior legal experts from two leading pan-European organizations said on Friday that more amendments to Armenia’s controversial law on demonstrations are needed to bring it into conformity with European standards on freedom of assembly.
The law was amended by the Armenian parliament last month and makes it somewhat easier for political and other groups to organize public gatherings.
Senior representatives of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) welcomed those changes at a seminar organized by them in Yerevan. But they said it still gives the authorities unjustified discretionary powers to restrict and block street protests.
“There are still problems that need to be dealt with and solved, like, for instance, the list of locations where meetings and rallies are forbidden or the distances between these places and a rally,” said Gianni Buquicchio, the secretary of the Venice Commission.
One of the most controversial provisions of the law still in force bans any public gatherings within a 150-meter radius of the presidential palace in Yerevan and other “strategic” sites such as the Metsamor nuclear plant. The legislation also empowers the police to decide the distance between protesters and other government buildings.
“This is more of a law on not holding demonstrations,” said Shavarsh Kocharian, a senior member of the opposition Artarutyun alliance. “The amendments are definitely positive but they did not eliminate the main flaw of the law.”
The Armenian authorities say they have already accepted most of the Venice Commission’s recommendations on the issue. They argue that law-enforcement officials can now disperse a demonstration only if it poses a threat to “public and state security.” Another amendment simplified procedures for notifying relevant authorities of plans to rally people in a particular location.
The law was passed by the National Assembly in May 2004, at the height of an opposition campaign of anti-government protests in Yerevan.