Council of Europe Hails Armenian Amnesty

councilofeurope

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has welcomed a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities as a further significant step towards defusing lingering political tensions in the country.

In a fresh resolution on Armenia adopted late Wednesday, the Strasbourg-based assembly also stopped short of endorsing Council of Europe observers’ positive assessment of the recent municipal elections in Yerevan.

“Through the adoption of a general amnesty for the persons deprived of their liberty in relation to the events of 1 and 2 March 2008, the Armenian authorities have complied with a crucial demand of the Assembly with regard to the political crisis that ensued after the Presidential election of February 2008,” read the resolution.

It described the resulting release of about 30 opposition members as a “clear indication of the willingness of the authorities to overcome the political crisis and its consequences, and to turn to a new page in Armenia’s democratic development.”

As recently as in January, the PACE threatened to impose sanctions against Yerevan over the continuing imprisonment of oppositionists arrested on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.” The administration of President Serzh Sarkisian staved off the embarrassing sanctions by pledging to enact Criminal Code amendments that affected some of the most prominent detainees. Armenian prosecutors subsequently dropped controversial coup charges leveled against them.

The PACE welcomed those amendments, while noting that they had no impact on the cases of a larger number of persons jailed solely on the basis of police testimony. But it made clear that only the release of all jailed oppositionists would “provide the necessary basis for the start of the dialogue and reconsolidation that is needed to overcome the political crisis.”

The assembly’s failure to demand that explicitly prompted Zaruhi Postanjian, the only opposition member of the Armenian delegation at the PACE, to start collecting signatures in support of a petition urging the release of the remaining “political prisoners.” Among those who signed it were two parliamentarians from Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Naira Zohrabian, another Armenian delegate representing the governing Prosperous Armenia Party, used this fact to condemn Postanjian’s initiative as “unpatriotic.” “Unfortunately, it has to be concluded that Ms. Postanjian has effectively behaved like a full-fledged member of the Azerbaijani delegation,” Zohrabian told RFE/RL.

Postanjian dismissed the criticism. She said her petition “can only lead to progress for our people.”

The PACE also regretted the dissolution of the bipartisan Fact-Finding Group of Experts tasked with conducting an independent and credible inquiry into the March 2008 clashes in Yerevan, another key demand of previous PACE resolutions on Armenia. It said the group’s pro-government and pro-opposition members are both responsible for “politicizing” the probe.

“The Assembly is seriously concerned about the fact that the investigation by the Prosecutor General into the 10 deaths that occurred [on March 1-2, 2008] has not yet led to any concrete results and considers it essential that this investigation is satisfactorily concluded without any further delay,” added the resolution.

The resolution also made a brief mention of the May 31 polls in Yerevan, seemingly distancing itself from the findings of an observer mission deployed by the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRAE). The 12-strong mission concluded that the vote was conducted largely “in compliance with European standards.”

The Armenian opposition, media and local election monitors have been far more critical of the authorities’ handling of the polls. The United States has similarly deplored “widespread fraud and intimidation” in the voting process.

“The numerous allegations that fraud and violations were widespread during these elections demonstrate that public trust in the electoral process is still very low in Armenia,” said the PACE. “This, as well as the shortcomings and violations noted, underscores the fact that electoral reform should now be a priority for the authorities.”

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