By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
Opposition members who did not commit violent acts should not be prosecuted and imprisoned in connection with Armenia’s bloody post-election strife, President Serzh Sarkisian told a visiting senior official from the Council of Europe on Tuesday.
Sarkisian and Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, met at the end of the latter’s three-day fact-finding visit to Yerevan. They discussed, among other things, the fate of dozens of supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian arrested following the March 1 clashes between security forces and opposition protesters.
According to the presidential press service, Sarkisian said that “in his view, law-enforcement bodies should bring charges only against those individuals who were involved in violence.” It was unclear if he believes the most prominent of the opposition detainees, including three members of parliament, should therefore be set free.
Virtually all of those detainees stand accused only of “usurpation of state power” and “incitement to mass disturbances.” In a June resolution on Armenia, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) questioned the credibility of these accusations, saying that they should be dropped “unless there is strong evidence that these persons have personally committed acts of violence or serious other criminal offences.” Armenian courts ignored the PACE’s opinion, prolong the pre-trial arrests of several closes Ter-Petrosian associates this month.
Speaking at a news conference later in the day, Hammarberg said the Armenian authorities should either put those oppositionists on trial or set them free. He also complained about “slow progress” in law-enforcement bodies’ stated efforts to clarify the precise circumstances in which two interior troops and eight civilians were killed on March 1-2. The issue dominated Hammarberg’s separate meeting on Tuesday with Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian.
According to a spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, Hovsepian told the commissioner that three of the civilian victims were killed by tear gas grenades wrongly fired by riot police. The official, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL that investigators still do not know which police officers were responsible for those deaths.
Truzian confirmed that the five other civilians were killed by gunshots but could not say who fired them. “We are still ascertaining the circle of individuals who used firearms,” she said. Nor have the investigators charged anyone with murdering the two interior troop servicemen, she added.
Sarkisian assured Hammarberg that his administration is committed to ensuring that the ongoing criminal investigation is “objective, comprehensive and impartial” but said it needs expert assistance from abroad. He also said the Armenian government is doing its best to meet other PACE demands for the release of opposition members arrested on “seemingly articifial charges” and respect for freedom of assembly.
Hammarberg told journalists, however, that the government should do more to address the Council of Europe concerns. He cast doubt on the independence and credibility of an Armenian parliamentary commission tasked with investigating the post-election unrest.