The National Assembly met for the first time since the June 20 parliamentary elections won by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s Civil Contract party. President Armen Sarkissian formally reappointed Pashinian as head of the government shortly after the start of the session.
According to the official election results, Civil Contract won about 54 percent of the vote, giving it 71 seats in the 107-member parliament.
Former President Robert Kocharian’s Hayastan alliance and the Pativ Unem bloc co-headed by former President Serzh Sarkisian and former National Security Service Director Artur Vanetsian control 29 and 7 parliament seats respectively.
Two Hayastan members elected to the parliament, Mkhitar Zakarian and Artur Sargsian, were arrested three weeks ago on separate criminal charges strongly denied by them. They ran major communities in Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province and openly challenged Pashinian’s administration in the months leading up to their arrests.
Two other elected Syunik mayors affiliated with Hayastan were also arrested in the wake of the snap parliamentary elections.
Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of the four Syunik figures, Hayastan’s deputies referred to Zakarian and Sargsian as political prisoners and “hostages” and demanded their release immediately after the start of the parliament session. Pativ Unem’s parliamentary group added its voice to those demands.
The opposition lawmakers insisted that their colleagues are held in detention in violation of Article 96 of the Armenian constitution which stipulates that “a deputy may not be deprived of liberty without the consent of the National Assembly.”
“Mr. Zakarian and Mr. Sargsian are not absent [from the parliament] but held hostage. They want to attend the parliament session just like you do, but they are not allowed to,” Hayastan’s Aram Vardevanian said, appealing to the parliament’s pro-government majority.
Vladimir Vartanian, a senior lawmaker representing Civil Contract, dismissed the opposition demands, saying that Zakarian and Sargsian were arrested before formally becoming parliament deputies and therefore do not enjoy immunity prosecution.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General echoed that claim in a statement issued shortly afterwards.
In a bid to step up the pressure on the authorities, Hayastan and Pativ Unem went on to nominate Zakarian and Sargsian respectively for the post of parliament speaker. They said both arrested men must at least be allowed to come to the parliament chamber and answer questions from fellow parliamentarians.
“Our colleagues must be here and present their views on their nomination,” said Hayastan’s Artsvik Minasian. Or else, he said, the opposition minority will regard the election of the new speaker as “illegitimate and illegal.”
Civil Contract nominated Alen Simonian, a close Pashinian associate and senior member of the ruling party, for the post.
The opposition lawmakers walked out of the chamber in protest before Simonian took the floor to accept his party’s nomination. They also boycotted a secret ballot that saw him elected parliament speaker later in the day.
Civil Contract will also install two of Simonian’s three deputies. Under Armenian law, the third vice-speaker must represent the opposition minority. Pativ Unem and Hayastan reportedly agreed last week to nominate a joint candidate for the post.