Some 30 Oppositionists Released Under Armenian Amnesty

YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–Armenia’s parliament approved last Friday, June 19, President Serzh Sarkisian’s initiative to declare a general amnesty that has lead to the release of most of more than 50 opposition members imprisoned following last year’s disputed presidential election.

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) welcomed the amnesty at its summer session in Strasbourg on Thursday, describing it as a further significant step towards defusing lingering political tensions in the country.

The amnesty bill, drawn up by the presidential administriaton, was widely linked with the fact that the PACE was again to discuss Armenia’s compliance with its resolutions at the session.  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.”

Thus far about 30 opposition members arrested in the wake of last year’s disputed presidential election have been set free since the declaration of the general amnesty. Representatives from the Armenian National Congres said Thursday they expect several more “political prisoners” to be granted amnesty in the coming weeks. They insisted that the pardons initiated by President Serzh Sarkisian were the result of pressure exerted on his government by the Armenian opposition and the international community.

According to Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, will only apply to about 90 percent of the jailed oppositionists in one way or another. But he could not say how many of them will be released from prison in the coming weeks. The vast majority of these individuals were jailed in connection with the March 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan.

Only those oppositionists who were sentenced to up to five years in prison and have already served one third of their sentences will be let go, under the amnesty. This led many to speculate that some of the most prominent prisoners, including three parliamentarians and a former foreign minister, might remain in jail.

But two opposition parliamentarians, Miasnik Malkhasyan and Hagop Hagopyan, who were convicted of only riot organization and therefore received shorter sentences, were released on Tuesday.

The third opposition parliamentarian, Sasun Mikaelian, however, was not set free and sentenced on Monday to eight years in prison for organizing the March 2008 violence in Yerevan and illegally possessing weapons and ammunition.

The fourth, former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, has not been released. He is facing a five-year sentence, which disqualifies him from immediate release.

Another prominant opposition member, Former Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian, was also released from prison on Tuesday. Jahangirian was serving a three-year prison sentence given for his alleged resistance to police officers that arrested him 16 months ago. He was sacked the day after delivering a passionate speech at an opposition rally in Yerevan in which he accused the Armenian authorities of rigging the February 2008 presidential election and described opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian as its rightful winner.
“We have managed to get 28 more hostages out of the regime’s prisons,” Levon Zurabian, the Armenian National Congress central office coordinator, told a news conference on Thursday. “On this occasion, I congratulate the Armenian society, you journalists, because I believe you too made your contribution to this development, human rights organizations, and all those who have actively fought for their release.”

“But we must all remember that 18 political prisoners will remain in prison,” said Zurabian.

The amnesty led the Armenian National Congress to bring forward its next rally in Yerevan to July 2. Zurabian said the rally will celebrate the oppositionists’ release from prison. But he did not specify whether the opposition alliance plans to launch a new campaign of sustained anti-government protests this summer.

The amnesty is also expected to affect roughly 2,000 other individuals serving prison sentences for various crimes not related to politics. They reportedly make up nearly half of the country’s prison population.

PACE described the amnesty 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.”

Calls to release the jailed oppositionists first came last July, when lawmakers from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation warned the Sarkisian administration that a failure to grant a swift amnesty would deal a devastating blow to Armenia’s international image and hurt chances for defusing the lingering political tensions in the country.

The ARF, which left Sarkisian’s coalition government in April over his conciliatory policy toward Turkey, had repeatedly urged the President to issue the general amnesty to prevent a possible political and social crisis from erupting in Armenia. The head of its Parliamentary Bloc, Vahan Hovanessian, earlier this month reiterated the party’s strong support for granting amnesty to opposition forces who were jailed following last year’s post-election unrest.

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