YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The Armenian parliament began debating on Monday a European-backed bill that would lift serious restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed by the government following post-election unrest in Yerevan on March 1.
The government has faced strong pressure from the United States, the European Union and other international bodies to lift the de facto ban on opposition rallies, which took the form of amendmen’s to Armenia’s law on public gatherings.
The bill debated by the National Assembly would rescind or change some of those amendmen’s. It was drawn up on the basis of understandings reached last month by the parliament leadership and representatives of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. In its written opinion made public last week, the commission said the proposed fresh amendmen’s to the law "largely address the concerns" expressed by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In particular, the bill would scrap a clause that allows the Armenian authorities to "temporarily" ban rallies for an unspecified period of time after previous street gatherings resulting in casualties. The authorities said earlier that the ban was necessary for preventing a repeat of the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition supporters protesting against official results of the February 19 presidential election.
The authorities have also agreed to somewhat limit the discretionary authority of the Armenian police and the National Security Service (NSS) to forbid anti-government rallies on the grounds that they pose a threat to "state security, public order, public health and morality." The two law-enforcement agencies would now be able to impose such bans only if there is an "imminent danger of violence or a real threat" to national security.
Organizers of rallies whose requests to demonstrate are denied will be able to challenge the "official opinions" of the police or the NSS in court. A court will then have to overturn or uphold the ban within 24 hours.
The bill also envisages the restoration of Armenia’s’ right to hold "spontaneous" street protests without prior application to municipal authorities. But it makes clear that a spontaneous protest cannot last for more than six hours.
The main parliament factions loyal to the government said they will vote for the amendmen’s, making their passage a forgone conclusion. Vahan Hovannesian, the parliamentary leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation cited the need to reverse a "step backwards" from democracy and comply with the April 17 resolution on Armenia adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
As well as urging the lifting of the rally ban, the PACE demanded that the authorities in Yerevan release political prisoners and allow an independent inquiry into the March 1 clashes that left at least ten people dead. The Strasbourg-based assembly warned that failure to take these measures before its June session could lead to the suspension of the voting rights of its Armenian members.