A key panel of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has called for sanctions on Armenia because of the continuing imprisonment of dozens of opposition members whom it for the first time described as "political prisoners."
The release of those individuals was a key demand of the two PACE resolutions on Armenia adopted following the disputed presidential election of February 19 and the March 1 violence in Yerevan.
The PACE's Monitoring Committee said after a meeting in Paris late on December 17 that the Armenian authorities have failed to comply with those resolutions in full. It said the voting rights of the assembly's eight Armenian members must be suspended until the authorities "have clearly demonstrated their political will to resolve this issue."
A new resolution drafted by the committee and made public on December 18 reads: "Notwithstanding positive developments in some areas, the Assembly finds it unacceptable that persons have been charged and deprived of their liberty for political motivations and that political prisoners exist in Armenia."
More than 100 associates and supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian were arrested in the wake of the presidential vote. Some 70 members of the opposition remain in prison. The vast majority of them have already received prison sentences on charges mainly stemming from the deadly March 1 clashes in Yerevan.
In its proposed resolution, the Monitoring Committee noted that a "significant number" of those sentences were based solely on police testimony, a practice condemned by PACE earlier this year. It also said that many of the opposition detainees have been prosecuted under articles of the Armenian Criminal Code dealing with organization of "mass disturbances" and attempts to "usurp state authority."
The draft resolution says there are "strong indications" that these criminal cases were politically motivated. "It follows that persons convicted on these charges can be considered political prisoners," it adds, rejecting Armenian government claims to the contrary.
The Monitoring Committee recommended sanctions against Yerevan while welcoming President Serzh Sarkisian's recent decision to form a new, supposedly independent body tasked with investigating the postelection violence. Armenia's governing coalition and main opposition forces are equally represented in the Fact-Finding Group of Experts.
Government Hopes To Avoid Sanctions
The Armenian government was quick to react to the committee's decision, with Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian describing it as "not favorable" for the country at a late-night news briefing on December 17. Nalbandian said the government hopes to avert Council of Europe sanctions during upcoming negotiations with the Monitoring Committee's two Armenia rapporteurs, John Prescott and Georges Colombier. They are due to visit Yerevan ahead of the next PACE session scheduled for late January.
"Perhaps there will be developments in January that will allow for a revision of that proposal," Nalbandian said.
The minister might have hinted at a possible general amnesty for the jailed oppositionists, an option advocated by Council of Europe officials. The Monitoring Committee deplored the Armenian authorities' failure so far to declare such an amnesty.
The committee's recommendations were criticized on December 18 by a spokesman for the ruling Republican Party (HHK). "Having said that, we respect the opinion of our European colleagues and hope that the visit of John Prescott and Georges Colombier...will set the record straight," Eduard Sharmazanov told Arminfo news agency.
The HHK's parliamentary leader, Galust Sahakian, predicted that PACE will not after all impose sanctions on Yerevan. "I don't think that the Council of Europe will be so imprudent as to push us closer to other bodies," he told RFE/RL. "The Muslim world also has certain structures."
Predictably, a representative of Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK) defended the recommendations. "In terms of political prisoners, Armenia has the worst record among the 47 Council of Europe member states," Hovannes Igitian told RFE/RL. "Our record is even worse than Azerbaijan's."
For his part, Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman, said: "You can't ensure democracy with sanctions. We ourselves must solve problems facing our country."