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Armenia Facing Strasbourg Censure

Two weeks ahead of a crucial debate on Armenia, few of the demands made by the Council of Europe have been implemented.
By Marianna Grigorian
Two weeks before an important session in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, at which the Armenian delegation risks losing its voting rights, opposition supporters say that little has been done to implement reforms.



The opposition says little has been done to fulfil the demands laid out in the assembly’s toughly-worded Resolution 1609, passed on April 17. It says that there are still several dozen political prisoners in jail, no independent investigation has been launched into the bloodshed in Yerevan on March 1 and there are still restrictions on the right of assembly.



“Almost two months after the adoption of the PACE resolution, there have been no significant changes,” said Stepan Safarian, a member of parliament from the opposition Heritage party.



The response from the Armenian government is that it has begun the process of passing new legislation on the right of assembly, that it has launched an enquiry into the March violence, but that its overtures to the opposition to initiate a dialogue have been rebuffed.



The opposition is particularly angry over what it says are “political prisoners”, most of whom were detained on or around March 1.



According to the prosecutor’s office, 45 people are in detention charged with criminal offences relating to the bloody events of that day, when ten people were killed on the streets of Yerevan in the wake of the disputed presidential election ten days earlier.



The PACE resolution says that “persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges, or who did not personally commit any violent acts or serious offences in connection with them, should be released as a matter of urgency”.



“Several political prisoners have been released, but only the form of their punishment has changed – the criminal investigation has not been halted,” said Suren Surenyants, a leading member of the opposition Republic party.



“Many of our friends remain behind bars and there’s been no independent investigation into the events of March 1.”



Surenyants was detained on February 25 and accused of organising an unauthorised demonstration and for attempting to “seize power”. He spent 53 days in detention and was only released after he staged a 12-day hunger-strike.



“I think that the PACE resolution played a big role in getting me released,” said Surenyants. “Instead of fulfilling the demands of the resolution, the authorities are busy creating the illusion that they are implementing them.”



He went on to warn, “If these trends continue, Armenia will find itself in quite an unpleasant situation.”



Safarian elaborated on the possible implications, “All the members of the Council of Europe will review their political support for Armenia, which will weaken our position, for example on the question of resolving the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.”



The assembly is due to take a vote on June 19 on measures which might include the humiliating step of stripping the Armenian delegation of its voting rights. A few days before the vote. two rapporteurs from PACE, Georges Colombier and John Prescott, will visit Armenia to report on the extent to which the resolution is being implemented.



Speaking at the April 17 session at which the resolution was passed, Prescott warned that “unless changes are made through open dialogue on reforms, all of Armenia’s civic society and its credibility as a member of the Council of Europe will be put in doubt”.



Armenian officials have said they take the resolution seriously and intend to implement its demands.



“The proposals in Resolution 1609 are in harmony with my electoral programme, my programme of action and the spirit of statements made by the political coalition we have formed,” President Serzh Sarkisian – whose election sparked the crisis – said on May 19.



Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesman for the pro-government Republican Party and member of parliament, said, “Armenia’s voting rights in PACE are very important, but even if there was no PACE, we would do everything to return the country to the democratic path.”



Officials say that the Armenian parliament has passed, in a first reading, amendments that PACE requested be made to the law of assembly; and that it has also made other concessions such as setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate the March 1 bloodshed.



“Why does the opposition not notice these reforms?” asked Sharmazanov. “Amendments have been made to the law on conducting marches and rallies, and there’s been an initiative to form a Public Chamber, which the opposition expressed no desire to take part in. And that’s not all – these reforms can’t be implemented in one day; they still need a lot of time.”



The Public Chamber, as proposed by the new president, will be a consultative body that includes representatives from both inside and outside parliament, former presidential candidates, public figures and members of the intelligentsia.



On May 23 former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate in the election, rejected the initiative.



Ter-Petrosian and his supporters say they will only engage in dialogue with the new authorities if the principal demands contained in the PACE resolution are met – chiefly, the release of prisoners, changes to the law on assembly, and an independent investigation into the March 1 violence.



They say the parliamentary committee formed to investigate the bloodshed lacks the independence envisaged by Resolution 1609.



“The main conditions have not been fulfilled, which is why we’ve refused to take part in the work of the [Public Chamber],” said Ter-Petrosian’s spokesman Arman Musinian.



The opposition makes little comment on the one point in the resolution which requires it to compromise by recognise the Constitutional Court ruling that Sarkisian was legally elected as president. The resolution includes the proviso that the opposition would still have a right to contest the court’s decision at the European Court of Human Rights.



Asked about this issue by IWPR, Musinian said only, “We know that there is a document called the ‘Constitutional Court verdict’, but we have said on numerous occasions that we do not accept the election results and we are going to apply to the European Court.”



The opposition says that is planning to ask permission from the Yerevan mayor’s office to hold a mass rally on the city’s Freedom Square, outside the opera-house, on June 20 to be addressed by Ter-Petrosian. That is the day on which PACE summer session opens, with discussion of Armenia’s implementation of Resolution 1609 on the agenda.



Lyudmila Sarkisian, head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, told Radio Liberty that more than 50 applications for demonstrations had been turned down so far by the city authorities.



Marianna Grigorian is a correspondent for Armenia Online in Yerevan and a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project.