By Astghik Bedevian
The opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party of Raffi Hovannisian is seeking the abolition of a controversial clause in Armenia’s Criminal Code that has been used for the prosecution of prominent government critics.
Representatives of the pro-government majority in the Armenian parliament made it clear on Thursday, however, that they will block the initiative.
Article 301 of the code makes it a crime to publicly call for a “violent overthrow” of the country’s government and “constitutional order.” Punishment for the crime ranges from hefty fines to up to three years in prison.
The Armenian authorities have occasionally used the clause against their radical opponents campaigning for regime change. The most recent such case involved the arrest and prosecution late last year of two hard-line nationalists opposed to major Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The two men have stood trial on charges of calling for violent regime change. Only one of them, Vartan Malkhasian, was convicted last month under Article 301 and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Prosecutors appealed a Yerevan court’s decision to clear the other defendant, Zhirayr Sefilian, of the charge. Both men as well as many opposition politicians have condemned the case as politically motivated.
Zharangutyun formally circulated in the National Assembly this week a draft law abolishing Article 301. Zaruhi Postanjian, a Zharangutyun deputy who authored it, asserted on Thursday that the clause restricts freedom of speech and is therefore unconstitutional. She described it as a “political tool for suppressing dissent.”
“The article makes people scared of speaking out publicly,” Postanjian told RFE/RL. “Each of us can be prosecuted under this article.”
Armen Ashotian, a parliament deputy from the governing Republican Party (HHK), strongly disagreed, saying that the Armenian constitution allows restriction of civil liberties in cases defined by law. “I think that the government and the parliament’s legal department will present a negative opinion about this bill,” he said.
Aram Safarian, a senior lawmaker from another governing party, Prosperous Armenia, also spoke out against the Zharangutyun bill. He claimed that the abolition of Article 301 would lead to “anarchy.”
(Photolur photo: Zaruhi Postanjian.)