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Armenia: Government Threatens Opposition With Criminal Prosecution

Stepan Demirchan A long-standing dispute between Armenia's ruling coalition and rivals of President Robert Kocharian reached new heights yesterday as judicial authorities said they had launched criminal proceedings against the country's main antigovernment alliance. Earlier this week, opposition leaders said they would carry on with plans to stage nationwide street protests in hopes of forcing Kocharian's departure.

Prague, 1 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Prosecutor-General 's Office in Yerevan has launched a criminal case against the main opposition Justice (Artarutiun) alliance, which it suspects of plotting to forcibly remove President Robert Kocharian from office.

In a statement released yesterday, the Prosecutor-General's Office blamed Justice for a series of recent unsanctioned rallies that purportedly called for regime change through violence and "overthrowing the existing constitutional order."

"We are united and determined to fulfill the people's will in a bid to restore constitutional order and establish a legitimate government in Armenia."
Contacted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, the Prosecutor-General's Office said the investigation would help determine whether charges should be brought against any particular individual.

Looming tensions between the three-party ruling coalition and the opposition boiled over on 30 March when a Justice lawmaker unexpectedly took the floor in the National Assembly (parliament) to publicly challenge the authority of the head of state.

Addressing the legislature, parliamentarian Viktor Dallakian said opposition parties soon intended to peacefully end President Robert Kocharian's rule. "[We will] start the process of ending Kocharian's regime beginning by 12 April,” he said. “To that end, [we plan] to organize nationwide rallies which will start at a date that will be announced by 5 April. We are united and determined to fulfill the people's will in a bid to restore constitutional order and establish a legitimate government in Armenia."

Brushing aside belated offers of dialogue, made separately by all three partners in the ruling coalition -- Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party, the Rule of Law (Orinats Yerkir) Party, and the Dashnaktsutyun Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dallakian further attacked Kocharian's rule. "Power in Armenia is in the hands of a junta," he said. "In a bid to scare the people, Kocharian recently reminded all that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and Defense Minister [Serzh Sargsian] keeps saying the army will help restore public order. These statements are anticonstitutional and go beyond the framework of legality."

Presidential spokesman Ashot Kocharian described Justice's threats as "baseless and aggressive" and warned against any attempt at removing the head of state by force.

The opposition claims the March 2003 presidential election that saw Kocharian win a second five-year term with more than 67 percent of the vote was rigged.

Kocharian's main challenger, People's Party leader Stepan Demirchian, garnered only 32 percent of the vote. Demirchian is the son of late parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, a former Communist Party boss who was killed in the October 1999 shootings in the assembly.

Following his defeat in the presidential race, Demirchian took the head of Justice -- an alliance made of the People's Party and other opposition groups -- with a view to grabbing a majority of seats in the May 2003 parliamentary elections. But the polls, marred by violence and irregularities, saw the victory of Kocharian's allies.

Justice, which has only 15 representatives in the 131-seat assembly, has since then regularly boycotted parliamentary sessions to protest Kocharian's successful attempts at allegedly "usurping power" and "muzzling critics."

After the opposition in early February failed to initial a constitutional debate that would have paved the way for a national vote of confidence in Kocharian, Justice decided once again to shun the assembly.

The alliance's nationwide protest plans are now supported by the National Unity Party, another opposition group that has nine representatives in parliament.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian Service yesterday after the prosecutor-general threatened his group with criminal proceedings, Demirchian said he and his allies remained undeterred in their determination to obtain a change of regime. "The constitution of the republic of Armenia says the seizure of power by individuals is a crime," he said. "This is [precisely] what happened in Armenia. The opposition says it wants to restore constitutional order. Thanks to the opposition's efforts there has been no [large-scale] violence or unrest so far."

Political tension became suddenly palpable on 28 March, when scuffles broke out between Justice protesters and Kocharian's sympathizers in the northwestern city of Gyumri (formerly Leninakan). Police detained at least nine opposition activists. Demirchian has blamed authorities for the incident, saying it proved Kocharian's regime was "agonizing," or in its death throes.

On the day after the Gyumri brawl (29 March), parliament initiated a debate on a controversial government draft bill on rallies and public gatherings. Lawmakers yesterday gave first-reading approval to the proposed legislation.

Although the draft eases procedures for holding demonstrations, it gives law-enforcement agencies extended powers to quash protests that are seen as threatening public order. That notably includes violent incidents and calls to forcibly overthrow the government.

The opposition claims the draft bill -- which is reportedly being examined by the Venice Commission (the "constitutional watchdog" of the Council of Europe) -- is tailor-made to allow authorities to disrupt any anti-Kocharian protest.

Earlier this week, Armenia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs warned against political unrest in the country, saying it could undermine the economy and jeopardize efforts to reach a peaceful solution on the territorial dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

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