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Armenia: Debate Over Death Penalty Threatens Council Of Europe Membership

Only six months after its hard-won accession to the Council of Europe, Armenia is facing the possibility of being suspended from the respected human rights organization over its stance on capital punishment. The country's largest political parties, which last year made a unanimous pledge to abolish the death penalty, are now demanding the execution of the perpetrators of the October 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan.

Yerevan, 12 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Two years ago, five gunmen entered the Armenian parliament and sprayed the assembly with bullets, killing the country's prime minister, parliament speaker, and six other officials. The suspects in the incident have been on trial since February, in a case that is setting Armenia on a collision course with leading European institutions.

Few in Armenia doubt what the outcome of the politically charged proceedings will be: a death penalty for prime suspect Nairi Hunanian and his main accomplices. The key question seems to be whether such a verdict would ever be carried out.

Armenia has conducted no executions since 1990, when an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty began. The punishment is due to be formally outlawed under the terms of Armenia's new membership in the Council of Europe. But the country's politicians -- including members of the governing coalition -- insist the ban should not extend to the case of the parliamentary murders.

The ruling Miasnutyun (Unity) bloc, which was co-founded by the slain premier and speaker, is particularly eager to see the jailed gunmen put to death. Galust Sahakian, the chairman of the bloc's parliamentary faction, says simply:

"This was an unprecedented crime, and nobody can teach us a lesson in that regard."

It's a view that is shared by virtually all voices in parliament and is increasingly promoted by the media. The Council of Europe, however, has been quick to offer a stern response. An official delegation from Strasbourg visited Yerevan last week and delivered a strong and explicit message: Armenia must make no exceptions to the death penalty ban or risk losing its Council membership.

Pietro Ago is Italy's permanent representative to the Council of Europe and head of the ad hoc "Ago group" monitoring Armenia's and Azerbaijan's compliance with their membership commitments. Speaking at a news conference in the Armenian capital, he warned:

"If there is a sentence that gives the death penalty but that is commuted -- that will be bad, but not terrible. But if there will be an execution, that could precipitate a crisis in relations between the Council of Europe and Armenia, and could bring the [Council's] Parliamentary Assembly to suspend the participation of Armenia."

In January, when the Armenian government joined the prestigious Council, it signed the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, including Protocol No. 6, which prohibits capital punishment. It undertook to make corresponding changes in the Armenian criminal code within a year.

But with the overwhelming majority of lawmakers pushing for the execution of the parliament assailants, meeting this goal now appears problematic. Much will depend on the position of President Robert Kocharian, who has yet to make a public statement on the issue. Ago said his group received assurances by Kocharian that no one will be executed under his rule.

But the Armenian leader has already been accused by supporters and relatives of the murdered officials of withholding the truth about the parliament bloodbath. Some of them still suspect Kocharian of orchestrating the murders with the aim of removing powerful political rivals. So any attempt to prevent the gunmen's execution would be portrayed by his opponents as support for terrorism.

Yet failure to honor international obligations could be highly damaging for Kocharian's drive to forge closer ties with Europe, which has been at the forefront of a global campaign against capital punishment. Last month Armenia, Russia, and Turkey were cited by Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer as the only European states where the practice is still legal.

Top politicians who had for years sought to persuade Strasbourg officials of Armenia's European credentials, now claim the Armenian people are not yet prepared to embrace all European norms. Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Association, a human rights group opposed to the death penalty, says this backtracking only betrays the politicians' hypocrisy:

"Our so-called elite wants to cunningly fool the Council of Europe and enjoy all benefits of membership, while ignoring conditions set by the latter. They want to have their way by succumbing to their sense of revenge."

Many Armenian officials seem to support the idea that the nature of the crime justifies the use of capital punishment and other human rights violations.

Responding to allegations that the murder suspects have been tortured while in police custody, parliament speaker Gagik Aslanian argued in a newspaper article that Hunanian and the other gunmen can be mistreated in custody because they are "beyond the law."

Many Armenians are in agreement. There have been no opinion polls to gauge popular opinion on the death penalty. But there are signs that Armenians are opposed to the ban on capital punishment, particularly in the case of the parliament murders.

For the dozens of people who regularly gather outside a Yerevan courthouse, justice in the 1999 case means nothing short of death for Hunanian and his henchman -- even at the cost of Armenia's Council membership.

Hovannes Nahapetian is a doctor from Ararat, the hometown of the late prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian. He says there is only one option for dealing with the parliamentary gunmen:

"The death penalty, only the death penalty. Those who killed Vazgen must be executed in front of the Armenian people. This is what we want. This is our goal."

The arguments cited by European officials and local human rights groups are unlikely to make citizens like Nahapetian change their views. For that reason, says Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Association, it falls to the country's leaders to always be "one step ahead of public opinion." But he adds that seems unlikely to happen in Armenia.