The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has voted to give Armenia another six months to comply with its demands for liberalization following the March 1 crackdown on opposition protestors. The June 25 decision could have resulted in suspension of Armenia's voting rights in the body a move that many opposition members and human rights activists within Armenia argue is still warranted.
In a report released on the day of the vote, the Assembly expressed disappointment with "the delay in implementing the concrete measures to comply with its demands," but opted to give the Armenian government the benefit of the doubt. "[T]he Assembly acknowledges that the time given to the Armenian authorities was short," the report reads.
Armenia has been given until January 2009 to comply with the resolution's terms or face a possible suspension of its PACE voting rights.
In its Resolution 1609, issued on April 17, PACE called on the Armenian government to lift restrictions on public rallies, to launch an independent inquiry into the March 1 crackdown on opposition protestors, to set up a dialogue with opposition parties, and to release those individuals imprisoned "on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges."
Two PACE co-rapporteurs recently evaluated as "unsatisfactory" the progress made to date in meeting those demands. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The government counters that it has already met PACE's main demands by relaxing some restrictions on public demonstrations a June 20 rally held by ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian is cited as a case in point and by setting up a temporary parliamentary commission to look into the events of March 1.
"Granting extra time for further implementation of the resolution shows that PACE appreciates the government's steps, so we will continue to do our best to return Armenia to a normal political life," ruling Republican Party of Armenia spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov told EurasiaNet.
Despite Sharmazanov's optimism, however, the report indicated that strong concerns persist about Armenia's response to the resolution.
While Ter-Petrosian's rally was viewed as a key test of the government's willingness to allow opposition demonstrations after the violence of March 1, the Assembly, the report states, "insists that the Armenian authorities should now allow rallies to be organized by the opposition without placing undue restrictions on them."
As expected, the body also urged that prosecutors drop charges against those imprisoned after March 1 for reasons other than violence or "other criminal offenses."
In line with that demand, the Assembly has called for the Armenian parliament to "adopt a general amnesty law" or for President Serzh Sarkisian to pardon all those who are not connected to the ten fatalities that resulted from the March 1 clash.
The measure is seen as intended to encourage a broader-based dialogue between the government and opposition. Ter-Petrosian stated at his June 20 rally that he will talk with officials only if "political prisoners" are released.
A call has also gone out for changes to Armenia's criminal code. Articles that allowed "[a] significant number of persons" to be charged with usurpation of power and causing mass disorder "are problematic as they allow for broad interpretation, leave excessive discretion to the prosecutor" and "fail to give clear guidance on the dividing line between legitimate expressions of opinion and incitement to violence."
The report also cautioned that "a [court] verdict based solely on a single police testimony without corroborating evidence or independent witnesses cannot be acceptable."
To date, 53 detainees have received prison sentences and 12 have received suspended prison sentences. Seventeen individuals are in jail awaiting trial; 11 others have been charged, but released after signing a document that forbids them from leaving the country.
Opposition parties, however, have characterized the government's measures as superficial at best. Many government critics say that they are less than pleased with the PACE decision.
"We are concerned with the time PACE has given [for Armenia to comply with its resolution], as it is too long and means our relatives will stay in prison for the next six months," Melissa Braun, the American wife of Ter-Petrosian's campaign manager, Alexander Arzumanian, one of the detainees, told EurasiaNet. Braun was taking part in a June 25 protest in front of the Yerevan office of the Council of Europe organized by wives of the March 1 detainees. "We have passed on a letter to the president of the PACE, Louis Maria de Pucchi, asking [him] to be more consistent."
Human rights activist Artur Sakunts, chairman of the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, says that PACE's decision was "a political decision that is not the objective evaluation of the human rights situation in Armenia." Sakunts doubts that the extra time allotted for compliance with PACE resolution 1609 will lead to any changes.
"In reality, Armenia has not shown progress and PACE understands it very well," he said.
One senior opposition politician, though, who was recently released from prison, argues that the latest resolution is harsher and more likely to discipline the government.
"The major advantage as compared to resolution 1609 is that the problems and the requirements here are more exact and the authorities will have less space to maneuver and override the requirements," Suren Surentyants, a member of the Republic Party's political council, told EurasiaNet.
One political analyst agrees.
"The pressure is so intense that the authorities will be forced to take the report into consideration and go for certain concessions this time," predicted Stepan Danielian, chairman of the Cooperation for Democracy non-governmental organization.
Meanwhile, Armenians on both sides of the political fence are left watching and waiting.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a writer for the online weekly ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.