By Hovannes Shoghikian and Emil Danielyan
President Serzh Sarkisian pledged to comply with Council of Europe demands for an end to his government’s crackdown on the opposition Friday as Armenian courts continued to imprison opposition activists who protested against his disputed victory in the February 19 election.
The presidential press service said Sarkisian formed a working group tasked with implement a relevant resolution passed by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) on April 17.
The resolution demanded an “independent, transparent and credible inquiry” into the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition supporters and “the urgent release of the persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges.” It also said that the recently enacted legal amendments which effectively banned opposition rallies should be repealed “with immediate effect.” The Strasbourg-based assembly threatened to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members if these measures are not taken before its next session due in June.
A statement by Sarkisian’s press service said the ad hoc group is to propose concrete steps stemming from the resolution within the next two weeks. The group will be headed by the chief of Sarkisian’s staff, Hovik Abrahamian, and will comprise members of the Armenian delegation at the PACE, deputy ministers of justice and foreign affairs, a senior prosecutor as well as the head of state television.
The Armenian authorities have so far declined to drop charges against any of more than 100 supporters of opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian arrested since the launch of the crackdown in late February. Most of them are prosecuted in connection with the March 1 clashes and the break-up of Ter-Petrosian’s sit-in in Yerevan’s Liberty Square which preceded them. Some have already been given prison sentences by local courts.
A district court in Yerevan sentenced on Friday yet another participant of the Liberty Square protest to 18 moths’ imprisonment. Armen Avagian, who worked as a Ter-Petrosian proxy on election day, was found guilty of assaulting police officers during the break-up of the protest.
Avagian pleaded not guilty to the accusations during and before the trial. “I am asking you to be reasonable and just,” he told the judge shortly before the announcement of the verdict. “Don’t be tools in the hands of someone else. I did not commit any crime and do not accept the accusations brought against me.”
Earlier in the day, the same court began the trial of two other opposition activists arrested for allegedly exposing two undercover agents of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) present at Ter-Petrosian’s non-stop rally in Liberty Square on February 27. Ter-Petrosian and his associates claimed that the NSS officers were caught red-handed while urging protesters camped in the square to take violent actions against the government.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor-General, they were recognized and exposed by Tigran Melkonian and Levon Khachatrian, former officers of the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB who took part in Ter-Petrosian rallies. It says Melkonian and Khachatrian thereby broke a written pledge not to reveal the identity of undercover NSS operatives which they had signed while quitting the security agency several years ago.
The two opposition supporters deny the charges. “My clients have nothing to do with the disclosure of those state secrets,” their lawyer, Karapet Aghajanian, told RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, Ter-Petrosian’s office said on Friday that the former Armenian president will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to invalidate the official results of the February 19 ballot that gave victory to Sarkisian. Armenia’s Constitutional Court already rejected on March 8 a similar lawsuit filed by Ter-Petrosian in late February. The court found credible only some of the purported evidence of election fraud presented by Ter-Petrosian, ordering the Office of the Prosecutor-General to investigate it. But it made clear that the alleged violations could not have affected the election outcome.
The PACE resolution urged Ter-Petrosian and his allies to recognize the ruling. “This should not be interpreted as the obligation to agree with the merits of the court's decision,” it said. “All electoral contestants have the right to challenge this decision by the legal means available to them, including the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”