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Analysis: Armenian Authorities Continue To Send Mixed Signals

Serzh Sarkisian has yet to make peace with the opposition (Photolur) Three months after the disputed February 19 ballot in which former Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was elected to succeed Robert Kocharian as president, and despite repeated expressions of concern by the U.S. government and the EU, courts continue to hand down, or to uphold, prison terms on supporters of former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian.

On May 23, Armenia's Court of Appeals upheld three-year prison sentences handed down to Ter-Petrossian supporters Simon Amirkhanian and Samvel Karapetian, who were sentenced last month for alleged interference in the vote count at a polling station in Gavar, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

The court similarly upheld verdicts against three Ter-Petrossian election campaign activists sentenced to between 18 and 30 months in prison on charges of assaulting a pro-government heckler during a campaign rally in the town of Talin, and on May 26 against Hovannes Harutiunian, a Ter-Petrossian proxy sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of illegal possession of ammunition.

The Abovian municipal court on May 23 sentenced Sos Gevorgian to one year in jail on charges of illegal possession of weapons, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Gevorgian's uncle Sasun Mikaelian is one of three opposition parliamentarians charged with plotting to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the wake of the disputed February 19 vote.

Meanwhile, the Armenian authorities are planning to deport Zhirayr Sefilian, a prominent Lebanese-Armenian oppositionist jailed in late 2006. Sefilian and a fellow Karabakh war veteran, Vartan Malkhasian, were arrested in December 2006 just days after founding an unofficial pressure group opposed to resolving the Karabakh conflict through territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.

They too were charged with calling for the violent overthrow of the Armenian government. A Yerevan court found Malkhasian guilty of that charge and sentenced him in August 2007 to two years in prison; Sefilian was acquitted on that charge but found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison for illegal possession of arms. His sentence is due to end on June 9.

Both Sefilian and Malkhasian claim they were jailed for their pledge to fight to prevent fraud during the May 2007 parliamentary elections, and both subsequently endorsed Ter-Petrossian's presidential bid. Sefilian's defense lawyer Vahe Grigorian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that deporting Sefilian would be illegal as he has two underage children. Sefilian has appealed to Bako Sahakian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, to grant him political asylum there, according to Arminfo on May 22.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), one of the four parties represented in the coalition government, has informed President Sarkisian of its objections to the decision, first to deny Sefilian citizenship of the Republic of Armenia, which he has twice applied for, and then to deport him, HHD bureau head Hrant Markarian told journalists in Yerevan on May 27, Noyan Tapan reported. On May 28, Armenia's Administrative Court rejected the police request to endorse Sefilian's deportation on the grounds that it was incorrectly phrased, according to Noyan Tapan.

Meeting on May 24 with President Sarkisian in Yerevan, three visiting members of the U.S. House of Representatives -- Adam Schiff (Democrat, California), Wayne Gilchrest (Republican, Maryland), and Allyson Schwartz (Democrat, Pennsylvania), all of them members of the House Democracy Assistance Commission -- expressed their shared concern about the ongoing postelection crackdown, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 26.

"We are concerned with the problems that occurred during the election, the violence that occurred after the election," Schiff told RFE/RL after the talks. "We consider ourselves very strong friends of Armenia. We want a good and successful future for Armenia, a democratic Armenia.... So we are here to try to assess the situation and talk with the Armenian government about how we can help move the government further in the direction of democracy," he said.

Specifically, Schiff stressed U.S. concerns that at least some of those detained and sentenced in the wake of the postelection protests and the violent clashes on March 1-2 in Yerevan between police and security forces and Ter-Petrossian supporters were targeted purely because of their political affiliation. "We've raised concern about the detention of anyone who was detained for political reasons, and we certainly hope that the government addresses these issues," he said. "No one is advocating that people that committed violent crimes be released or not be subject to trial. But people should not be detained or put to trial for merely expressing their views."

The pro-Ter-Petrossian daily "Haykakan zhamanak" noted on May 24 that U.S. President George W. Bush has still not congratulated Sarkisian on his election as president.

The overall pattern of repression has, however, been tempered by two positive moves on the part of the authorities. On May 23, Sarkisian's national-security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Ter-Petrossian will be invited to nominate a representative to Sarkisian's planned public chamber, which will comprise both pro-government and opposition politicians and will focus on key domestic and foreign-policy issues. Isagulian said he would call Ter-Petrossian's office personally "and try to agree terms with them," and then, assuming the invitation was not rejected out of hand, meet personally with Ter-Petrossian's staff to repeat the offer.

But Levon Zurabian, Ter-Petrossian's former presidential spokesman, told RFE/RL the same day that Ter-Petrossian will not embark on any talks with the authorities as long as his supporters remain in jail, as doing so would mean that "the authorities have drawn us into the hostage trade...they would seek to extract a concession from us in exchange for the release of every hostage."

On May 26, state prosecutors agreed in what was termed a goodwill gesture to release opposition Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party leader Aram Karapetian from pretrial detention, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Karapetian was arrested on February 24 for having circulated DVDs on which he posed incriminating questions to both Kocharian and Sarkisian, and hospitalized with heart problems on May 15.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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