Armenia to Scrap Death Penalty Exceptions in September

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Deputy speaker Tigran Torosian said Friday that Armenian Parliament will abolish–by the end of next month–a legal loophole that allows the execution of individuals convicted of terrorism and other grave crimes and that has put the country at odds with the Council of Europe (CE). Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian–meanwhile–expressed hope that Armenian authorities will fulfill all of their commitmen’s.

According to Parliament’s press office–Torosian told visiting senior officials from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) that the National Assembly would ratify Protocol 6–which outlaws capital punishment in peacetime–by September 25. The move would strike down the controversial legal clause that allows death sentences in exceptional circumstances.

The clause was appended by the previous legislature last April to Armenia’s new criminal code that abolishes the death penalty in accordance with the CE. Lawmakers created the exception primarily to allow courts to sentence to death six jailed gunmen that stormed Parliament in the bloody October 1999 raid. However–the CE called this exception unacceptable.

In a September 2002 resolution–PACE warned Armenia to sign Protocol 6 by June 2003 or face possible political sanctions. The deadline was eventually extended by six months.

Leaders from virtually all of Parliament’s factions assured the PACE officials–Jerzy Jaskiernia and Rene Andre–on Thursday that they will vote for the document’s ratification. The only faction opposed to the ratification is the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc led by Stepan Demirchian and Aram Sarkisian–whose close relatives were among eight senior officials killed in the parliament massacre. Meeting with Jaskiernia and Andre–Demirchian complained that PACE places more importance on the death penalty than on other issues–such as free elections.

"Armenia is determined to fulfill its obligations to the CE and continue its European integration," Speaker Baghdasarian said in a statement–adding that he hopes the process will be completed by the end of 2003. He said that Parliament plans set up an ad hoc commission that will deal with Armenia’s integration into various European structures.

Speaking to journalists in Yerevan–Jaskiernia said he is encouraged by the assurances given by Armenian leaders. He said that PACE would discuss the status of Armenia’s membership commitmen’s in January.

Another unresolved issue in Armenia’s dealings with the CE is the passage of a law on alternative service for individuals refusing to serve in the army on religious grounds. Most of them are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group. The Armenian government says it will legalize the group after the passage of the legislation–and in the meantime–continues to prosecute its members who refuse compulsory military service.

Jaskiernia and Andre discussed the issue with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian on Friday. Markarian was quoted as saying that his government would "fully" comply with the CE requiremen’s.

These commen’s contrasted sharply with the PM’s calls last year for tougher restrictions on activities of "dangerous sects" challenging the supremacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. "Security of the state and the people is more important than some [international] treaties," he told top government and law-enforcement officials in September 2002. "We will try not to contradict the CE’s deman’s. But up to a point."

Many senior members of Markarian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) now recognize the importance of Armenia’s hard-won CE membership. "The world is governed by certain structures–and the CE is one of the most important [structures]," said HHK parliamentary leader Galust Sahakian. "Armenia would find itself in an extremely difficult position if it were to leave the CE."

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian also met with Jaskiernia and Andre to discuss many issues–including Armenia’s responsibilities before the CE–Armenia’s integration into the European structures–Armenia’s relations with its neighboring countries–regulation of the Karabagh conflict and the possible political changes in Azerbaijan.

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