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Armenia: Anger at Council of Europe Visit

Opposition disappointed by a monitoring mission they hoped would hold the authorities to account for April violence.
By Zhanna Alexanian

The Armenian opposition has voiced concern at a Council of Europe mission to check on the human rights situation, saying it was too soft on the government.

Polish co-rapporteur Jerzy Jaskiernia from the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, CoE, visited Armenia between June 11 and 15 to prepare a preliminary report on how the country is fulfilling demands made in a tough resolution adopted on April 28, following the violent break-up of demonstrations earlier in the month.

Opposition activists had hoped Jaskiernia’s visit would follow up on the resolution and put the government under new pressure ahead of a CoE Parliamentary Assembly session which President Robert Kocharian is to address on June 23. The assembly meeting will also discuss Jaskiernia’s preliminary report.

In the assembly’s April resolution, it warned Yerevan that if it did not comply with its obligations to the CoE – including the freeing of opposition activists detained earlier in April and liberalising the media – the Armenian delegation might be stripped of its credentials in October.

Armenia joined the 45-member CoE in 2001, and has since moved to comply with a number of obligations by appointing a human rights ombudsman and promising to abolish the death penalty.

The resolution was prompted by the brutal break-up of an opposition demonstration in Yerevan on April 13, which was followed by the detention of dozens of members of the opposition.

One of the most prominent, former defence minister Vagarshak Harutiunian, was released from two months’ detention only on the eve of Jaskiernia’s visit, but could still face a jail sentence of 10-15 years if he is convicted of inciting a coup.

In its resolution, the parliamentary assembly called on the Armenian authorities to “immediately investigate – in a transparent and credible manner – the incidents and human rights abuses reported during the recent events, including assaults on journalists and human rights activists, and inform the [CoE] assembly of their findings and of any legal action taken against persons responsible”.

The opposition said the CoE visit was too kind to the authorities.

“Of 23 official meetings, only two were with the opposition,” said opposition deputy Shavarsh Kocharian. “It’s obvious that what’s happening is just the pretence of carrying out the resolution. The clearest confirmation that it’s pretence is the June 10 court decision against those people who attacked journalists.”

Two policemen were fined around 180 US dollars for attacking journalists in April.

“If there is merely another act of subjective monitoring it will just worsen the socio-economic, moral and political crisis in the country,” said opposition leader Artashes Gegamian, one of the defeated candidates in last year’s presidential election.

Government and pro-government officials were more pleased by the way Jaskiernia’s trip had gone.

“The April report relied on various pieces of information, but the commission was not [then] in Armenia,” said deputy speaker of parliament Tigran Torosian, who also heads Armenia’s delegation to the parliamentary assembly. “In these three or four days, with a large and focused programme, they were able to gather a lot of facts.”

Jaskiernia spent much of his visit hearing different views on a resolution issued by Armenia’s constitutional court on April 16 immediately following the demonstrations in Yerevan.

The court ruled that, contrary to opposition complaints, President Robert Kocharian had won the 2003 presidential elections. However, it proposed that a national referendum be held to within a year to test people’s confidence in Kocharian. Court chairman Gagik Harutiunian said that such a poll would be an “effective way of overcoming the confrontation in society”.

“We are trying to understand how people perceive this [court] resolution,” said Jaskiernia said. “From a legal point of view, it is just a suggestion because the constitutional court does not have the right to call a referendum. There is a legal aspect to the question, but we are continuing to look at it from a political point of view.”

The three pro-government parties in parliament - Dashnaktsiutiun, Orinats Yerkir and the Republican Party - have spoken out against a referendum, but the opposition is insisting that it should take place.

“The last point of the constitutional court’s resolution states that the decision is final, is not subject to review and must be implemented after it is published,” said Shavarsh Kocharian.

On the issue of arrests, Jaskiernia said he had heard very divergent views as to whether those arrested in April were “political prisoners” or not. He said he would state his own position on the matter only when he produced his final report.

Tigran Ter-Yesayan, president of Armenia’s International Association of Lawyers, told IWPR that he had information that 400 people had been detained and interrogated this year after attending demonstrations – adding that the real figure was probably much higher.

Last month a 24-year-old opposition activist, Eduard Arakelian, was given an 18-month jail sentence for hitting a policeman with a plastic mineral water bottle during the April rally. Arakelian pleaded guilty but said that he had struck out only after the policeman had hit him with a truncheon and broken his front teeth.

Once Jaskiernia delivers his preliminary report to the CoE in June, he will produce a final one in October when the parliamentary assembly is due to discuss Armenia again.

Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter for Armenia Now, www.armenianow.com

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