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Armenian Parliament Approves Amnesty For Jailed Oppositionists

Yerevan's Nubarashen prison

Yerevan's Nubarashen prison

YEREVAN -- The Armenian parliament has overwhelmingly approved a general amnesty that should lead to the release of virtually all opposition members currently in jail.

The release of all "political prisoners" is one of a leading opposition party's (HAK) three main preconditions for starting a potentially far-reaching dialogue with President Serzh Sarkisian and his three-party governing coalition.

Sarkisian requested the move last week.

The National Assembly approved the bill by 90 votes to 0, with one abstention.

The amnesty is expected to result in the quick release of some 400 prisoners, which is equal to roughly 10 percent of the country's entire prison population.

Among them will be four members of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) jailed in the wake of the protests that followed the disputed February 2008 presidential election.

The vote sparked deadly street clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition protesters. More than a hundred supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the HAK leader and the main opposition presidential candidate, were arrested in the following weeks.

The amnesty law will take effect the day after it is signed by parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian and formally published. Abrahamian must sign the bill within 24 hours.

Asked when the opposition figures and other detainees will be set free, Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service: "We have to see when it will enter into force. We still have 22 hours to publish the law."

"The clock will then start ticking," he added.

Some parliament deputies from Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) predicted that the most prominent of the jailed oppositionists -- Nikol Pashinian, editor of the newspaper "Haykakan Zhamanak," and former parliament deputy Sasun Mikaelian -- will be freed before the HAK's next rally in Yerevan, which is scheduled for May 31.

In addition to the release of all "political prisoners," the HAK is insisting on the lifting of a de facto government ban on opposition rallies in a key Yerevan square and a renewed investigation into the 2008 unrest. The Armenian authorities effectively met those demands late last month.

HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov said on May 26 that the amnesty will facilitate "internal political dialogue."

The HAK says that it will negotiate with the government only on the conduct of pre-term presidential and parliamentary elections, its main stated goal. The government and its political allies have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of early elections.

"We are attentively watching developments," said senior HAK representative Levon Zurabian. "We see that efforts are being made to free the political prisoners."

Zurabian said the HAK will announce its next steps at the May 31 rally.

"One thing is already clear: we have achieved a serious success," he said. "It is also clear that this is creating a new situation that allows us to fight for the establishment of a legitimate government in Armenia without [risking] upheavals."