After heavy lobbying by the international community, a special session of Armenia's National Assembly on June 19 approved President Serzh Sargsyan's request for a prisoner amnesty.
"[T]he amnesty is a long expected and quite justified measure in the . . . [current] political situation," Parliamentary Speaker Hovik Abrahamian commented about the 98-1 vote. Three MPs abstained.
Discussion about the need for an amnesty -- and lobbying by international organizations -- started after the arrest of opposition activists blamed for the deadly March 1, 2008 clashes between Yerevan protesters and police that left 10 dead. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The amnesty, in effect through September 30, will free prisoners sentenced to five or ten years in prison who have no prior criminal record, and who have already served at least a third of their sentence. It will concern the cases of some 2,000 prisoners, and "will actually result in the release of about 500," media outlets reported Justice Minister Gevorg Danielyan as saying. Eligible prisoners not released would see their sentences cut.
President Sargsyan's request calls for prosecutors to abstain from criminal investigations of those charged with instigating the March 2008 violence and to suspend investigations into crimes committed before June 1, 2009, if wanted suspects "voluntarily appear before" law enforcement officials by July 31 or appear in court before their case comes to trial.
The provision applies to two key opposition leaders who have been wanted by police for over a year now -- pro-opposition Haykakan Zhamanak newspaper editor-in-chief Nikol Pashinian and businessman Khachatur Sukiasian, a leading supporter of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosian, head of the Armenian National Congress.
But while pro-government media promote the decision as a sign that the enmity between government and opposition is at an end, representatives of Armenia's largest opposition movement, the Armenian National Congress headed by ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosian, responded cautiously to the measure.
"The Congress demanded and continues to demand the immediate release of political prisoners," Ter-Petrosian spokesperson Arman Musinian stated. Musinian declined to comment further on the amnesty.
Ter-Petrosian supporter Suren Sureniants noted that "there were certain expectations which were not fulfilled," such as the release of all arrested opposition activists. "[T]he political and the social motives behind the amnesty remain unclear," he said.
Some observers and opposition members name the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as the prime motivation for the amnesty. At its June 24 plenary session, PACE is scheduled to consider how Armenia has handled political reconciliation since March 2008. The organization's co-rapporteurs left the country on June 18 after a four-day visit.
"The problems of people persecuted for their political views do not end with this," commented Heritage Party parliamentarian Zaruhi Postanjian, the only member of parliament to oppose the amnesty.
Those individuals who are currently wanted by police will still face a preliminary investigation and a trial before they can receive an amnesty, Postanjian argued. Only if the court's sentence is no longer than five years will these individuals see the charges against them dropped, she said.
"That is to say, the amnesty does not refer to people who are wanted at the moment," Postanjian said, adding that the initiative was actually intended to "impress" PACE, which had long lobbied for the amnesty. The measure, however, does not universally meet PACE's demand for the release of "persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges" not responsible for violence or "serious offenses."
"The initiative was actually a one-sided solution and Serzh Sargsyan's claims to start 'a new page' were not realized," Heritage Party Secretary and parliamentarian Stepan Safarian commented.
Independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian disputed the notion that the amnesty was a stunt for PACE, but termed it "a PR trick."
"Obviously, the opposition has become much weaker and the decision will let the tensions simmer down, whereas a year ago it might be seen as a sign of the authorities' weakness," Bozoian said.
Davit Harutiunian, chairman of the National Assembly's committee for state and legal affairs and Armenia's envoy to PACE, dismissed the claim that the amnesty was intended as a sop to the organization, noting that the issue was "a matter of domestic politics."
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan.