STRASBOURG (Combined Sources)–The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has given the Armenian authorities six more months to end their crackdown on the opposition and fully restore civil liberties restricted following last February’s disputed presidential election.
In a resolution adopted late Wednesday, the PACE also backed away from its earlier intention to explicitly demand the reopening of an independent Armenian television station that was controversially pulled off the air six years ago.
Armenian government members of the Strasbourg-based assembly welcomed the crucial reprieve given to the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian. The decision allowed Yerevan to avoid sanctions and suspension of its delegation members’ voting rights at the PACE.
But the only opposition member of the Armenian parliamentary delegation walked out of the PACE session in protest against what he saw as a betrayal of Europe’s "own values, rights and benchmarks." The announcement was, however, not approved of by PACE Monitoring Committee co-rapporteur on Armenia John Prescott, who noted that such an attitude wasn’t a solution to the problem.
The measure came as a follow-up to the PACE’s previous resolution on Armenia adopted in April. It demanded the urgent release of all opposition members arrested on "seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges," the scrapping of serious restrictions on freedom of assembly and the launch of an independent inquiry into the deadly post-election clashes between opposition protesters and security forces. The PACE warned that failure to take these measures by late June could lead to the suspension of the voting rights of its four Armenian members.
The assembly’s Monitoring Committee, which drafted the latest resolution, argued against the imposition of any sanctions on the authorities in Yerevan for the time being, while saying that they have not done enough to meet the PACE deman’s.
"Two months is not enough time to implement all the changes for which we called," John Prescott, one of the committee’s two Armenia rapporteurs, said during the debate broadcast live on the Internet. "We believe that Armenia is going in the right direction, and changes are being made," he added.
Prescott said he and the other rapporteur, Georges Colombier, arrived at this conclusion despite having serious misgivings about the independence of a newly formed Armenian parliamentary commission tasked with investigating the March 1 violence in Yerevan that left at least ten people dead. He said they are also concerned about the continuing arrest of dozens of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Raffi Hovannisian, another prominent opposition figure, dismissed Prescott’s argumen’s. "It is clear ‘s Armenian civil society deman’s that we address this ‘s that Armenia has not passed democracy’s test on all counts," he told more than two dozen fellow PACE members attending the discussion. "Scores of prisoners of a political character remain detained and incarcerated, and they must be released forthwith, not in January."
"The 1 March government crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and the fatal opening of fire that killed eight civilians and two policemen have not led to the opening of individual criminal cases," said Hovannisian. "To date, there are no suspects: no-one is alleged to have ordered the firing or to have executed them. That is a travesty of the judicial process."
"Finally, the right to assembly, free association and free speech remains at the discretion of security agencies and, later, a judiciary that is far from independent," he added before announcing his boycott of further PACE sessions. Hovannisian said he will not attend them until "Armenia meets standards ‘s its own and Europe’s ‘s and Europe rises to the realization of its own values, rights and benchmarks."
Six other parliamentarians led by Marietta de Pourbaix-Lundin of Sweden proposed that the deadline for the Sarkisian administration’s compliance with the April resolution be extended to next October, rather than January.
"Mr. President and dear colleagues, if you consider nothing else, please consider those political prisoners who have already been in prison for four months," she said. "Should they stay in prison for another six months?"
Both the Monitoring Committee and the full assembly rejected the proposed amendment to the new resolution, however. Prescott argued that the committee will ask Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, to pay another fact-finding visit to Yerevan and draw up a special report on the arrested Armenian oppositionists by next September.
"We have visited two or three times, and it is not easy to get to the truth," said the former British deputy prime minister.
By contrast, the PACE accepted virtually all of nearly two-dozen amendmen’s proposed by the members of the Armenian delegation. Those watered down some of its key deman’s addressed to the Armenian government.
In particular, the assembly removed from the original version of the draft resolution a sentence urging the government to give the right of a consultative vote to international experts invited to take part in the parliamentary inquiry into the March 1 unrest. The adopted text also makes clear that the ad hoc commission formed by the Armenian parliament should look into the "causes," rather than the "circumstances," of the deadly use of force against opposition protesters.
Another amendment effectively rebukes the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition for not accepting the legality of Sarkisian’s victory in the February 19 election.
"The Assembly regrets that not all opposition forces have recognized the Constitutional Court’s decision, which confirmed the results of elections as announced by the Central Electoral Commission," it says.
The PACE also set deman’s to the opposition, calling on all forces not to boycott efforts on dialogue and engage in a constructive dialogue. Acknowledging that the main impediment to the dialogue is the presence of detainees, the Assembly advised that Armenia’s president should consider asking the National Assembly "to adopt a general amnesty law or that the president should issue a pardon decree with respect to all persons detained in relation to the events of March 1, 2008, with the exception of those personally involved in the tragic deaths that occurred on that day."
The resolution also mentions a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that faulted the authorities in Yerevan for consistently refusing to allow the independent TV station A1 to resume its broadcasts. The document’s original version drafted by Prescott’s committee specifically stated that they should at last "grant a broadcasting license to A1 ."
The Armenian authorities succeeded in having that demand dropped as well. The final version of the resolution only contains a general call for the fairness and transparency of broadcasting license biddings administered by a government-controlled regulatory body.