By Ruzanna Stepanian and Karine Kalantarian
Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, met senior government officials and opposition leaders Monday on the second day of a fact-finding visit to Armenia focusing on its government’s post-election crackdown on the opposition.
Hammarberg already visited Yerevan in the wake of the March 1 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces which left at least people dead and sparked mass arrests of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian. His latest trip is aimed at assessing progress made by the Armenian authorities in addressing Council of Europe concerns about the crackdown.
The Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in particular have repeatedly demanded that the authorities restore civil liberties, release all political prisoners and allow an independent inquiry into the bloody unrest. In a follow-up resolution adopted late last month, the PACE again threatened to strip its Armenian members of their voting rights if Yerevan fails to meet these demands by next January. PACE officials also asked Hammarberg to visit the country and submit a report on the situation with human rights there by September.
Hammarberg’s interlocutors included Hovik Abrahamian, the chief of President Serzh Sarkisian’s staff who is coordinating the Armenian government’s stated efforts to comply with the PACE resolution. A statement by Sarkisian’s office said the two men discussed the “legal status” of dozens of jailed Ter-Petrosian loyalists. Abrahamian was quoted as insisting that there are no political prisoners in Armenia.
Predictably, Ter-Petrosian claimed the opposite, presenting the Hammarberg with a list of 82 persons that he believes remain in jail for expressing their views and engaging in peaceful political activities. According to Levon Zurabian, a top Ter-Petrosian aide, the opposition leader also gave the Council of Europe official a copy of a controversial directive which a senior law-enforcement official investigating the post-election unrest sent to the chief prosecutor of Armenia’s Vayots Dzor region.
The prosecutor was instructed to round up local participants of the opposition rallies in Yerevan and collect personal data about them and their family members and interrogate their neighbors. Ter-Petrosian has portrayed the document as proof of the illegal character of the government crackdown.
Hammarberg met separately with Samvel Nikoyan, chairman of an ad hoc commission of the Armenian parliament tasked with investigating the March 1 clashes. According to Nikoyan, Hammarberg is worried that the parliamentary inquiry will not be independent and credible in the absence of opposition representatives. Ter-Petrosian’s Popular Movement and Zharangutyun, the only opposition party represented in the parliament, say they distrust the commission because it is dominated by government loyalists.
“Stressing the importance of the opposition participation, we asked [Hammarberg] to once again urge them to take part in our work,” Nikoyan told RFE/RL.
But Stepan Safarian, one of the Zharangutyun lawmakers who met with the visiting official from Strasbourg, defended the opposition boycott. “We can not participate in the commission’s work yet because the parliament majority is trying to control the decision-making process,” he said. “And that can’t instill trust in us and the extra-parliamentary opposition.”
“That commission is made up of discredited persons,” charged Zurabian. “There exists no evidence of the impartially of those persons.”
Safarian told RFE/RL that he and his colleagues also complained to Hammarberg about the continuing trials and imprisonments of opposition members on what the PACE considers dubious charges.
Hammarberg received the relatives of some of those oppositionists at the Council of Europe office in Yerevan on Sunday. “He advised us to appeal to the European Court,” said Marine Voskerchian, whose arrested husband Grigor is a senior member of the Ter-Petrosian-led movement. “We will certainly take that advice.”
Also on Sunday, Hammarberg held separate meetings with representatives of local civic groups, the chairman of Armenia’s Chamber of Advocates and defense lawyers of several prominent oppositionists arrested following the February 19 presidential election. The lawyers said they briefed him on details of the criminal cases brought against their clients.
“He assured us that he will be honest and will objectively present what he has seen and heard,” said Stepan Danielian of the non-governmental organization Cooperation for Democracy.
Hammarberg is scheduled to meet with President Sarkisian and hold a news conference on Tuesday.
(Presidential press service photo: Hammarberg, left, meets with Abrahamian.)