Armenian U-turn on Death Penalty

A thirst for revenge for the assassination of the prime minister is set to overturn Armenia's commitment to abolition of capital punishment.

Armenian U-turn on Death Penalty

A thirst for revenge for the assassination of the prime minister is set to overturn Armenia's commitment to abolition of capital punishment.

Armenia appears to be coming under pressure from the Council of Europe to honour its commitment to abolish capital punishment.


Council of Europe secretary-general Walter Schwimmer, speaking at an international congress against the death penalty in Strasbourg on June 21, called on Armenia to strike capital punishment off its statute books for ever. "A civilized state must not - cannot - kill," he said.


Yerevan pledged to outlaw the death penalty within six months of its membership of the council in January 1991, but its efforts to do so have been frustrated by widespread public support for state-sanctioned executions.


Backing for capital punishment has grown substantially since Nairi Hunanian - accused of killing eight senior officials, including prime minister Vazgen Sarisian, just over a year and a half ago - went on trial in February.


Hunanian, a former journalist and student leader, is charged with treason, terrorism, murder and attempting to stage a coup. His trial is not only inflaming passions in the court's public gallery, but has radically altered public and political attitudes towards the death penalty.


Armenia introduced a moratorium on capital punishment in 1991 under the then president Levon Ter-Petrosian. A new draft of the penal code, prepared more than four years ago, provided for the replacement of the death penalty with a mandatory life sentence.


Though no execution has taken place for the past ten years, courts still condemn defendants to death for particularly severe crimes. There are currently 32 people on the country's only death row in Nubarashen prison.


Although Armenia has pledged to outlaw state-sanctioned executions, the national assembly has yet to ratify the new penal code draft - and seems unlikely to do so in the immediate future.


Stepan Zakarian , secretary of the People's Party of Armenia, a member of the ruling though fractured coalition, said on June 20 that parliament will honour its pledge by September. "We are absolutely confident that the bill will be adopted," he said.


His confidence is not borne out in the Armenian press, which constantly features reports calling for Hunanian's head. "We should shoot Hunanian's brother in front of him, so he tells us the truth about who ordered the murders," one politician was quoted as saying.


While the Yerevan is awash with conspiracy theories over the 1999 massacre, the chief perpetrator is seen as Hunanian - and there's a widely-held view that he should be executed, with pro-capital punishment politicians apparently exploiting the case to further their cause.


"There was a different attitude towards the death penalty before October 1999," said deputy parliamentary speaker Tigran Torosian recently. "But the situation has changed. The perpetrators of the killings must face the severest punishment. In this particular case, the death penalty will not be abolished."


Even some politicians who supported abolition are now changing their minds. Vladimir Nazarian, head of the national assembly's legal department, backs the death penalty, but admitted that he had been against it up until the parliament killings. "The death penalty is much closer to the mentality of Armenians than abolition," he said.


If Amenia back-tracks on its pledge to outlaw capital punishment over the Hunanian case, attention will undoubtedly focus on the fate of the 32 death-row prisoners.


Nazarian, who described these cases as "tragic", said their lawyers could apply of presidential pardons. Although experience has shown that the head of state rarely grants such requests.


Human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian, who chairs the Armenian Helsinki Committee, believes Hunanian's actions have set back the death penalty debate by a decade. "No one questioned abolition when the moratorium was introduced in 1991," he said.


"How can politicians talk about the need to retain the death penalty in one particular case? This is immoral."


As for the 32 Armenians languishing on death row, Ishkhanian is critical of the authorities for leaving them guessing over their ultimate fate. "I think that the state is committing a crime by leaving them in such mental anguish," he said.


Jeanna Alexanian is an independent journalist based in Yerevan


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