By Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian authorities have accepted the Council of Europe’s demands to stop their crackdown on the opposition and restore civil liberties restricted in the wake of last February’s disputed presidential election, senior pro-government lawmakers said on Monday.
In a resolution adopted last week, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) threatened to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members unless the authorities allow an independent investigation into the post-election violent unrest in Yerevan that left at least ten people dead. It also demanded the “urgent release” of individuals arrested for their political activities and the scrapping of severe restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed after the March 1 violence.
Aram Safarian, a senior parliamentarian from the governing Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), said official Yerevan has the “political will” to comply with these demands before the PACE’s next session due in June. “After the formation of the new government is over, the authorities will draw up a timetable regarding all issues on which the Council of Europe has made decisions and proposals,” he told reporters. “In accordance with that timetable, steps will be taken to settle and stabilize the situation before June.”
“Our country must seriously discuss the main points of this resolution and carry out what is demanded,” said Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), another junior partner in the governing coalition. “Obvious we have registered serious regress. We must win back our democratic achievements of the past few years.”
“We must also win back our positions in the international arena,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL.
The authorities have already moved to reconsider the controversial amendments to Armenia’s law on rallies and demonstrations criticized by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The issue was discussed last week by senior Armenian officials and visiting experts from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
In a joint statement on Monday, the two human rights and democracy watchdogs said the Armenian government agreed to “repeal or change the amendments” and will draft corresponding amendments to the law soon. "The Venice Commission and the ODIHR look forward to receiving the drafts of the new amendments and stand ready to review them in light of relevant international standards", said Gianni Buquicchio, the commission’s general secretary.
Safarian said that the BHK, which boasts the second largest faction in parliament, supports in principle the idea of an independent inquiry into the clashes that would involve foreign experts. According to Avet Adonts, another BHK lawmaker and deputy head of the Armenian delegation at the PACE, the BHK and three other parties represented in President Serzh Sarkisian’s coalition government will open consultations this week on how to organize such an inquiry.
Safarian added, however, that it should run parallel to the ongoing criminal investigation into what the authorities call an opposition attempt to stage a coup d’etat masterminded by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. More than 100 supporters of Ter-Petrosian have been arrested as part of the crackdown.
“I have no doubts that our society will not let innocent people end up in jail,” Safarian said. When asked how ordinary Armenians can do that, he replied, “Don’t ask me. Ask society.”
Dashnaktsutyun’s Hovannisian likewise indicated that the jailed oppositionists should be let go only if they prove their innocence during their upcoming trials. “If you want to have evidence that a particular person is not a criminal, that he did not organize or incite crimes, it will take time,” he said. “After all, we are talking about evidence. People should be set free with proven innocence.”
Ter-Petrosian and his allies insist that virtually all of the detainees are political prisoners prosecuted for challenging the official results of what they consider a fraudulent election.
(Photolur photo: Aram Safarian.)