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Opposition Sees No Letup Of Government Crackdown

By Ruzanna Stepanian, Astghik Bedevian and Ruben Meloyan
The Armenian authorities are continuing their post-election crackdown on the opposition contrary to their pledges to comply with a recent resolution adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), a spokesman for opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian said on Monday.

Arman Musinian said the authorities are not only keeping more than 100 opposition leaders and activists in jail but are continuing nationwide detentions of other, less known Ter-Petrosian supporters. “We see no signs that the authorities are really addressing the problem,” he told RFE/RL.

According to the Office of the Prosecutor-General, 89 persons are currently under arrest pending trial on charges mostly stemming from the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition supporters demanding a re-run of the February 19 presidential election. Fifteen others have already been tried and convicted, virtually all of them for allegedly committing vote irregularities and resisting police during the break-up of Ter-Petrosian’s non-stop protest in Yerevan’s Liberty Square which preceded the deadly clashes. Four of them were handed suspended jail terms after pleading guilty to the accusations, while the others protested their innocence and will have to serve their sentences in prison.

The most severe punishment was given to Harutiun Urutian, chief of Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign office in the northwestern town of Maralik. He was convicted of obstructing the work of a local election commission and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.

Individuals found guilty of more grave crimes in Armenia routinely get lighter sentences, especially if they did not fall foul of the government. For example, Armen Keshishian, the former mayor of Nor Hajn, a small town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, was sentenced to only three and a half years in prison for shooting and killing a man in broad daylight in September 2005. Keshishian was a member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia.

The Armenian government insists that none of the jailed Ter-Petrosian loyalists was arrested and prosecuted for political reasons. Still, it has pledged to meet key demands contained in the PACE resolution adopted on April 17. One of them is “the urgent release of the persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges.”

President Serzh Sarkisian formed late last month a working group tasked with ensuring Yerevan’s compliance with the resolution. The group is headed by the chief of the presidential staff, Hovik Abrahamian, and compromises senior law-enforcement officials and members of the Armenian delegation at the PACE.

Among those lawmakers is Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party. Hovannisian has informed Sarkisian that he will not be able to attend the group’s meetings because of a busy travel schedule and proposed that another Zharangutyun parliamentarian, Stepan Safarian, be appointed in his place. The Armenian president and his four-party governing coalition rejected the proposal.

Armen Rustamian, chairman of the parliament committee on foreign relations, criticized Hovannisian’s stance on the issue on Monday. “Why is it that when it comes to real work we start looking for replacements and ways to wriggle out of it,” Rustamian told RFE/RL. “This is unacceptable.”

According to Avet Adonts, another pro-government Armenian member of the PACE, the working group will discuss the issue of opposition detainees at its next meeting scheduled for Wednesday. “A representative of the Office of the Prosecutor-General will present detailed information about those cases,” he said.

Only two senior opposition figures, Suren Sureniants and Yerjanik Abgarian, have been released on bail so far. Other prominent oppositionists such as Aleksandr Arzumanian, Ter-Petrosian’s national campaign manager, have had their pre-trial detentions prolonged by courts even after the PACE resolution.

“They continue to prolong pre-trial arrests,” complained Musinian. “This despite the fact that no investigative activities are being done with regard to the overwhelming majority of our political prisoners. In essence, the criminal cases against them are not being investigated, which only shows that those cases are fabricated.”

“The regime seems in no mood to meet the PACE demands. Its assurances to the contrary are just a gimmick,” said Ruzan Khachatrian, a spokeswoman for the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), one of two dozen opposition groups aligned to Ter-Petrosian.

Both Khachatrian and Musinian claimed that police continue to round up and bully opposition activists across Armenia to make sure that they do not attend further anti-government protests in Yerevan. Musinian said as recently as on April 29 an opposition supporter in the southern town of Artashat was detained and beaten by the local police to give incriminating testimony against a resident of a nearby village also sympathetic to Ter-Petrosian.

Four other opposition activists were reportedly taken to the police headquarters of Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district on Saturday morning and set free at night. Anahit Bakhshian, a parliament deputy from Zharangutyun, said she visited the police station and was told by the deputy chief of the district police that the four men are being questioned in connection with their participation in the March 1 unrest.

Speaking to RFE/RL, Bakhshian suggested that the real purpose of the interrogations was to extract incriminating testimony against Hakob Hakobian, a local opposition parliamentarian arrested on charges of organizing “mass riots” as part of a coup plot allegedly hatched by Ter-Petrosian. Hakobian, who also heads an association of Armenian veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, began a hunger strike on April 28 in protest against his prosecution. According to his lawyer, he has decided to end the strike on Tuesday.

In its resolution, the PACE also demanded that the authorities in Yerevan repeal recently enacted legal amendments that allow them to ban opposition rallies practically at will. The Venice Commission, another Council of Europe body, said the authorities have agreed to “repeal or change the amendments” and will draft corresponding changes in the law soon.

Armenian officials have said the government also accepts in principle the PACE’s calls for the launch of an “independent, transparent and credible inquiry” into the March 1 violence. Some of them have suggested that it be conducted by an ad hoc parliament commission.

Musinian claimed that the government is “terrified” by the prospect of such an inquiry. “If they allow an independent investigation, all criminal cases will collapse,” he said.

(Photolur photo: Ter-Petrosian opens a conference of opposition parties supporting him on May 2.)