Armenian Reporter

Reinforcing civil liberties in Armenia

Published: Friday January 30, 2009

This week, Armenia's National Assembly, working with the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to address the consequences of the events of March 1, 2008, found a creative way to turn a lose-lose situation into a win-win situation for all parties involved - for Armenia, its government officials, its opposition members, its democratic order, and for Europe.

A shared commitment

Armenia joined the Council of Europe in 2001, firm in its determination to continue building a political culture based on the values its people share with the peoples of the rest of Europe. In joining, Armenia committed itself to continuing to build a participatory democracy and to enhance the protection of civil liberties. The Council of Europe, in turn, made a commitment to help Armenia do so.

As the traumatic events of March 1 unfolded - protesters and rioters clashed with law enforcement personnel, the president declared a 20-day state of emergency, suspending certain civil liberties, and ten people received mortal wounds before calm was restored - the Council of Europe appropriately got involved. Its concern was to help Armenia reinstate liberties while maintaining public safety and the constitutional order.

The Council of Europe has played a positive role overall.

Primary responsibility for maintaining order as well as freedom lies with the government, the opposition, the civil society, the media, and the people of Armenia. But Europe has helped keep Armenian institutions focused on the shared commitment to democracy building.

This week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe - which brings together parliamentary delegations from all its member-states every three months - debated the state of democracy in Armenia for the third time since March 1, and adopted a third resolution.

The first debate, in April 2008, had led to a resolution making specific demands on Armenia and setting a three-month deadline for the implementation of those demands. Armenia was asked to amend its law on public rallies to eliminate changes made during the state of emergency; it was asked to begin an independent, transparent, and credible inquiry into the events of March 1 and the circumstances that led to them; and it was asked to release all persons detained on "persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges or who did not personally commit any violent acts or serious offences in connection with them."

In addition, the resolution called on all political forces in Armenia to begin an open and serious dialogue on further democratic reforms.

The second PACE debate, in June, led to a resolution acknowledging the progress Armenia had made in meeting the demands and also recognizing that more time was needed to implement them in full.

Crimes against the state

By December, European monitors were focused on one issue above all: were criminal charges against some people detained in connection with the post-election unrest politically motivated? On December 17, the PACE Monitoring Committee concluded that they were. The committee then proposed a resolution that, if enacted, would declare that Armenia is holding political prisoners and would deprive the Armenian delegation of its vote in PACE. The resolution was to be presented to the full assembly this week.

The monitors were particularly concerned about criminal convictions gained on the basis of police testimony alone.

Noting that many detainees were being charged with "attempting to seize state power in violation of the Constitution," the PACE monitors argued that the March 1 events were not "aimed at the usurpation of state power." The charges were thus unwarranted, they concluded.

This matter is, of course, one for Armenia's courts and the independent inquiry called for by PACE to decide. The PACE monitors are not called upon to determine guilt or innocence in criminal cases.

Nonetheless, the conclusion that many detainees should be released was a sound one. If and where there is strong evidence of an intention to take arms against the state, Armenia must be firm in prosecuting and punishing insurrectionists. And those directly responsible for each of the 10 deaths should be identified and prosecuted.

But in other cases, even the perception that some charges may be politically motivated undermines public confidence in the state. Thus, in cases where no violence is alleged, criminal prosecution is best avoided.

A difficult impasse

The December 17 decision of the PACE Monitoring Committee created a difficult impasse.

Officials at the Council of Europe clearly did not want to impose sanctions against Armenia - which is enormously more tolerant of dissent than several other member-states, such as Russia and Azerbaijan. The officials just wanted to see tangible progress in implementing the April resolution.

The president of Armenia, Serge Sargsian, was willing to pardon anyone prosecuted in connection with the events of March 1 who applied for a pardon. Overall, 28 people applied for and were granted pardons. But a pardon application involves an admission of guilt, which made it an unacceptable option for many activists who believed themselves innocent.

The president had the power to declare an amnesty, but he was unwilling to do so, arguing - quite reasonably - that to preempt the main court case just as it began would be to undermine the judicial process.

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Hovik Abrahamian, is credited with finding a constructive way out of this impasse. He undertook to form a special working group to rewrite - within one month - the articles of the Criminal Code under which the prisoners in question are charged. The working group, chaired by Davit Harutiunian, head of Armenia's PACE delegation and chairperson of the Armenian parliament's Standing Committee on State and Legal Issues, is to do its job in cooperation with the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) and the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights.

The speaker further undertook to get the revisions to the law adopted by the parliament and signed by the president within one additional month. Under Article 22 of Armenia's constitution, laws eliminating an offense or mitigating the punishment for an offense are retroactive.

Thus, it is expected that within the next three months, detainees who have not been charged with violent crimes will be released. On this basis, the Monitoring Committee changed its recommendation. In its third resolution, the assembly decided to review Armenia's case again in April.

The inquiry

In this way, the Council of Europe, working with Armenia's National Assembly, is helping Armenia not only deal with the immediate issue at hand, but also to amend its laws to reduce the chances of politically motivated prosecutions in the future. We welcome this development.

It would be a mistake, however, to focus exclusively on the matter of detainees.

An expert fact-finding group is inquiring into the events of March 1. The group, formed by presidential decree, includes two members appointed by opposition parties (one by the Heritage Party and another by the Armenian National Congress headed by former president Levon Ter-Petrossian), two members appointed by the governing coalition, and one member appointed by Armenia's Human Rights Defender. The fact-finding group has the right to demand and obtain information from any governmental body or official.

The events of March 1 deeply wounded Armenian society. For the wound to begin healing, the facts and available evidence regarding those events must get a full airing. The burden put on the shoulders of the fact-finding group is a heavy one. We trust it will work diligently to fulfill its mandate. It will require the full cooperation of officials and witnesses - including the president, both former presidents, government officials, law-enforcement personnel, opposition activists, and witnesses. We call on all to rise to the occasion.

Building and maintaining a democracy is, of course, a never-ending process. But it is reasonable to expect that by April 2009, all of the issues raised in the April 2008 PACE resolution will have been fully addressed. What should remain is a continuing dialogue among all political forces in Armenia on further democratic reforms.

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