Yerevan Gets Another Council of Europe Reprieve

STRASBOURG (Combined Sources)–The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) backed down on its threats to impose sanctions against Armenia on Tuesday, citing the Yerevan government’s pledge to enact legal amendmen’s that could result in the release of dozens of imprisoned opposition members.

In a further blow to the Armenian opposition, the PACE stopped short of describing those individuals as “political prisoners,” a term used by the assembly’s Monitoring Committee last month.

In a draft resolution submitted to the PACE on December 22, the committee stated that “political prisoners exist in Armenia” and urged the Strasbourg-based assembly to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members. It said the authorities in Yerevan have failed to fully comply with earlier PACE resolutions that demanded the immediate release of all oppositionists arrested on “artificial or politically motivated charges.”

The Monitoring Committee’s two Armenia rapporteurs, John Prescott and Georges Colombier, made significant changes in the proposed resolution after visiting Yerevan and meeting President Serzh Sarkisian and other top officials earlier this month. Its final version overwhelmingly approved by PACE lawmakers says only that supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian “may have been charged and imprisoned for political motivations.”

The resolution emphasized the importance of the Sarkisian administration’s pledge to amend two articles of the Armenian Criminal Code that deal with attempts to “usurp state authority by force” and organize “mass disturbances” and have been used in the prosecution of the most prominent of the jailed oppositionists. The PACE described the pledge as a “signal indicating the readiness of the Armenian authorities to begin to address the concerns of the Assembly in relation to the situation of the persons deprived of their liberty in relation to the events of 1 and 2 March 2008.”

The Armenian authorities maintain that the clashes, which left ten people dead, were part of the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition’s attempts to stage a coup d’etat following the February 2008 presidential election. Seven Ter-Petrosian associates went on trial on corresponding charges last month.

In a separate explanatory note to the PACE, Prescott and Colombier cast doubt on the credibility of those charges. “We have not received evidence that the seven opposition leaders organized violent actions with premeditation with the aim to usurp the state power, for which they have been charged under Article 300,” they said.

The statement said Prescott and Colombier urged President Sarkisian to declare an amnesty for all arrested oppositionists. “The President indicated that he did not rule out the possibility of a declaration of amnesty at a later stage,” it said.

Sarkisian has so far agreed to pardon 28 individuals who were arrested in connection with the March 1 clashes and admitted their guilt in separate petitions to the head of state. The PACE welcomed the individual pardons. “The Assembly expresses its expectation that this process will continue unabated,” read its latest resolution.

The resolution instructed the Monitoring Committee to continue to examine the Armenian authorities’ compliance with PACE deman’s and “propose any further action to be taken by the Assembly” at its next session due in late April.

The committee’s chairman, Serhiy Holovaty, said Yerevan still has a long way to go in addressing the Council of Europe concerns. “Three debates, three resolutions, and only in December, as our co-rapporteurs say, have we achieved progress,” he said. “But it is limited.”

David Harutiunian, head of the Armenian delegation at the PACE, welcomed the resolution and said the government will make every effort to honor its pledges. “I am trying to look at the situation optimistically,” Harutiunian told reporters. “The step we are taking is really important.”

“We have a clear task to fulfill by April,” according to Armen Rustamian, a member of Armenia’s PACE delegation. “First of all, the working group that has been formed has assumed a serious responsibility to submit proposals within a month. Another month is given to turn these proposals into a law. That means that we should have a serious thing to say at the next sitting of the Monitoring Committee scheduled for March 30-31 in Spain,”

Rustamian, who also chairs the Armenian parliament’s Committee on Foreign Relations, told ArmRadio that he believed the authorities have the political will to solve the issue as soon as possible. “I can state with confidence that it’s not favorable for the Armenian authorities to have a conflict with the Council of Europe,” he said.

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