YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia’s parliament approved on Friday President Serzh Sarkisian’s initiative to declare a general amnesty that will lead to the release of most of more than 50 opposition members imprisoned following last year’s disputed presidential election.
The bill drawn up by the presidential administration 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.
Presenting the bill to lawmakers, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian confirmed that it will apply to 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.
According to Zaruhi Postanjian, a prominent trial attorney and parliament deputy from the opposition Zharangutyun party, only 34 supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian will be set free as a result of the amnesty. Postanjian was the only deputy to vote against the bill.
Stepan Safarian, another Zharangutyun lawmaker, said the bill does not ensure Armenia’s full compliance with Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) resolutions adopted over the past year. He argued that the resolutions demanded the immediate release of individuals who did not commit violent acts during the March 2008 clashes between security forces and Ter-Petrosian supporters demanding a rerun of the presidential ballot. The PACE has also strongly condemned court verdicts based on police testimony.
Both Danielian and David Harutiunian, head of the Armenian delegation at the PACE, dismissed these arguments. “Frankly speaking, I wouldn’t want to link this with the resolutions,” said Harutiunian. “I think this is a matter of our domestic policy.”
The amnesty is widely linked with the fact that the PACE will again discuss Armenia’s compliance with its resolutions at its summer session in Strasbourg next week. The assembly has previously threatened to impose sanctions against Yerevan.
The adopted bill makes clear that 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. This means that some of the most prominent prisoners, including three parliamentarians and a former foreign minister, might remain in jail.
The four men have been on separate trials for allegedly organizing the March 2008 clashes. Court verdicts in these high-profile trials are due to be announced on Monday.
Danielian said at least one of the defendants, parliament deputy Sasun Mikaelian, will definitely stay behind bars because he is also charged with illegal arms possession. Prosecutors have demanded a nine-year sentence for Mikaelian and six-year jail terms for the two other opposition parliamentarians, Hakob Hakobian and Miasnik Malkhasian. The fourth defendant, former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, is facing a five-year sentence, which would also disqualify him from immediate release.
As the National Assembly debated the bill more than 100 relatives and supporters of the jailed oppositionists gathered outside the parliament building to demand the release of all “political prisoners.” Police warned the protesters chanting “Acquittal!” that the demonstration is illegal but did not attempt to disperse the small crowd.