The National Assembly voted by 91 to 0, with one abstention, for a relevant bill that was drafted by the presidential administration and met a key demand of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK).
The amnesty is expected to result in the quick release of some 400 prisoners making up roughly 10 percent of Armenia’s entire prison population. Among them will be four HAK loyalists controversially imprisoned following a disputed presidential election held in February 2008.
The vote sparked deadly street clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition protesters demanding its rerun. More than a hundred supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the HAK leader and the main opposition presidential candidate, were arrested in the following weeks.
Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian signed the amnesty law later in the day. It will be published and formally take effect within the next 24 hours.
Asked when the opposition and other detainees will be set free, Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service: “We have to see when it will enter into force,”
“We still have 22 hours to publish the law,” he said. “The clock will then start ticking.”
Some parliament deputies from Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) predicted that the most prominent of the jailed oppositionists – “Haykakan Zhamanak” newspaper editor Nikol Pashinian and former parliament deputy Sasun Mikaelian -- will be freed before the HAK’s next rally in Yerevan scheduled for May 31.
The release of all “political prisoners” is one of the HAK’s three preconditions for starting a potentially far-reaching dialogue with the Sarkisian and his three-party governing coalition.
The two other demands voiced by Ter-Petrosian’s bloc are the lifting of a de facto government ban on opposition rallies in a key Yerevan square and a renewed investigation into the 2008 unrest. The Armenian authorities effectively met these demands late last month after the HAK threatened to launch a new campaign of non-stop antigovernment protests.
Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the ruling HHK, said on Thursday that the amnesty will facilitate an “internal political dialogue” in the country. “Surely there is a public and political subtext here because with this amnesty we can mitigate the existing political situation,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The HAK says that it would negotiate with the government only on the conduct of fresh presidential and parliamentary elections, its main stated goal. The government and its political allies have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of snap polls, however.
“We are attentively watching developments,” Levon Zurabian, a top HAK representative, said, commenting on the amnesty. “We see that efforts are being made to free the political prisoners.”
“Also very positive is the fact that this is being accompanied by the release of hundreds of other people because prison conditions today are very harsh,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Zurabian added that the opposition alliance will announce its next steps at the May 31 rally. “One thing is already clear: we have achieved a serious success,” he said. “It is also clear that this is creating a new situation that allows us to fight the establishment of a legitimate government in Armenia without upheavals.”