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Armenia: Inmates Prefer Bullet to Life Terms

Many death row prisoners bemoan abolition of capital punishment.
By Zhanna Alexanian

Armenia’s decision to outlaw capital punishment is being seen as a fate worse than death by dozens of prisoners currently awaiting execution in Yerevan jails.

The republic’s new penal code, which became law this month, brings Armenia into line with the Council of Europe’s preconditions for membership.

Yet it still allows for a sentence of capital punishment to be handed down for certain serious crimes committed before August 1, 2003 - namely “terrorist” acts and premeditated murders.

Prisoners currently being held on death row reacted with fury to the news that President Robert Kocharian had commuted their sentences to life imprisonment, and went on hunger strike for four days earlier this month.

Avetik Ishkhanian, chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, who visited Nubarash prison’s death row, told IWPR that the inmates had been hoping their cases would be reconsidered following the repeal of capital punishment. “They think that life imprisonment is worse than death,” he said.

One prisoner, Artur Mkrtchian, facing execution for murdering five soldiers while he was doing national service, has appealed many times against his conviction and now feels profoundly disappointed. “His sentence was unfair to begin with. And now they have replaced it with another sentence, which is just as harsh,” said the prisoner’s father.

While death sentences have been issued here for decades, they were never enforced after independence in 1991.

The new penal code came as a result of protracted talks with the Council of Europe, which demanded a ban on capital punishment as a condition of Armenia’s accession in 2001.

However, the decision cannot yet be considered final, as the Armenian parliament is yet to ratify the Sixth Protocol of the European Convention, which outlaws the death penalty.

Ratification is expected in the autumn and observers do not anticipate any problems, as the majority of legislators side with the government on the matter.

Meanwhile, the new penal code, in which the harshest punishment is life imprisonment, has left open the option of applying the death penalty for certain types of crime committed before August 1, 2003 - such as “terrorist” attacks, abuse of minors, and premeditated murder.

Analysts believe that this exception relates to an armed group, led by Nairi Hunanian, which gunned down the prime minister, parliamentary speaker, six other deputies and high-ranking government officials, in an attack on the Armenian assembly on October 27, 1999.

The families of the victims and fellow lawmakers are demanding that Hunanian and his group be sentenced to death.

However, the new parliament appears to be prepared to fully ban the death penalty once the sixth protocol is ratified.

Tigran Torosian, deputy assembly speaker, used to support the idea of keeping capital punishment exclusively for Hunanian’s group, but has since resigned himself to the inevitability of a total ban.

“Memories of the October 27 tragedy still linger, but we cannot afford to make exceptions. We have to give up the death penalty in good faith if we want to remain in the Council of Europe,” he said.

“We had enough time to sentence these people to death after the tragedy, but it’s too late now,” he said, adding that membership of the Council of Europe was far too important to risk losing.

Last September, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, gave Armenia until July 1, 2003, to close the legal loophole that allowed the death penalty to be applied to Hunanian’s group. Later on, PACE granted Armenia’s request to extend the deadline by another six months.

“Our government convinced PACE that the political situation in Armenia had changed, and time was not yet ripe for abandoning the death penalty,” Torosian said. “They agreed to put it back until the end of the year.”

The Armenian government named January 2004 as the deadline for a “final and irrevocable” repeal of the death penalty during its talks with the AGO group, a special delegation of the Council of Europe Cabinet of Ministers monitoring Armenia’s membership compliance.

Parliamentary speaker Artur Bagdasarian and Torosian personally assured Council of Europe officials that Armenia would stand by its pledge.

However, the Spravedlivost (Justice) opposition alliance, headed by Stepan Demirchian, the son of Karen Demirchian, killed in the 1999 attack on parliament, believe it is premature for Armenia to end capital punishment. It believes far to many serious crimes are committed with impunity in Armenia as it is.

Many ordinary Armenians are of the same opinion. “I am against the death penalty,” said Anait Egiazarian, 48, a teacher. “Because the life of an innocent person may be taken as a result of a judicial mistake.

“But for nations where citizens have no legal protection, the death penalty is the only solution. The sooner Armenia becomes a civilized country, the sooner we will be able to abandon the death penalty.”

Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter for the Web-based publication,