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Controversial Armenian Parliamentary Commission Begins Work

On June 16, the pro-government factions within the Armenian National Assembly voted unanimously in favor of setting up an ad hoc commission to investigate the March 1-2 clashes in Yerevan between supporters of defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and security forces that resulted in 10 deaths. The conduct of an "independent, transparent, and credible inquiry" into the postelection violence was one of the key demands addressed to the Armenian authorities by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in a resolution adopted in mid-April.

At its first session later on June 16, the newly established commission, which is due to present its findings to the National Assembly by October 25, elected Samvel Nikoyan (Republican Party of Armenia, HHK) as its chairman. The deputy-chairman's position was reserved for a representative from Zharangutiun (Heritage), the sole opposition party represented in parliament. The commission was initially to include two parliament deputies from each faction and one independent deputy, giving a total of at least eight pro-government lawmakers and two opposition representatives. But on June 19, it decided to invite to participate in its work all political forces that received more than 3 percent of the popular vote during the May 2007 parliamentary elections but less than the minimum 5 percent needed to win seats in the National Assembly, and also defeated candidates in the February 19 presidential elections, including Ter-Petrossian, or their representatives.

As of the afternoon of 19 June, seven invitations had been sent out, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In addition to Ter-Petrossian, the other forces invited were the National Accord party of Artashes Geghamian, the United Labor Party of Gurgen Arsenian, and the Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) Party of Aram Karapetian. Invitations were also sent to former presidential candidates Tigran Karapetian, Aram Harutiunian, and Vazgen Manukian. Geghamian and Manukian have both named representatives who attended a session for the first time on June 24, Noyan Tapan reported.

The Zharangutiun (Heritage) faction opted out of the June 16 vote on setting up the commission and was not even present at the chamber at the time of voting. Zharangutiun faction member Armen Martirosian told RFE/RL the same day that the faction was unlikely to participate in the commission's work because "our basic proposals were not accepted." Zharangutiun faction secretary Stepan Safarian similarly told RFE/RL that "there is a preliminary decision to abstain from having any representative in the commission."

But on June 17, Zharangutiun Chairman Raffi Hovannisian proposed Myasnik Malkhasian and Sasun Mikaelian, both of whom are currently being held in pretrial detention on charges of organizing mass unrest and attempting to seize power stemming from their alleged involvement in the March 1 violence, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Both men are nominally still members of the HHK parliament faction despite having thrown their support behind Ter-Petrossian. Commission Chairman Nikoyan rejected that proposal as "insulting" and "not serious," given that under the commission's statutes factions may only nominate their own members, Noyan Tapan reported on June 18.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian Service in prison on June 19, Malkhasian and a second arrested pro-Ter-Petrossian parliamentarian, Hakob Hakobian, both questioned whether the newly formed commission will prove capable of conducting an "impartial and objective inquiry" in light of the imputed bias of some of its members, including Nikoyan, who Malkhasian said has made televised statements exonerating the Armenian authorities. "The commission cannot work independently," Malkhasian said. "There can be no impartial inquiry because no particular investigation is being conducted today in connection with what should be the main focus of the investigation -- the people who died. There has been no clarification regarding who fired the shots and under what circumstances those people died. There should have been an investigation concerning the wounded, those who inflicted damage on state property. But the investigation today is moving in a different direction. They arrest people and after that they try to fabricate charges against them."

Hakobian for his part expressed regret that the ad hoc commission chose not to co-opt the proposed opposition parliamentarians. "If the commission wanted to clarify anything, they should have been happy to involve Myasnik Malkhasian and Sasun Mikaelian in its work. Because both of them were on the ground and did not commit any wrongdoing," Hakobian said.

The sole nonaligned deputy on the commission, Lyova Khachatrian, stepped down on June 24, explaining that he did not wish to contribute the widespread negative perception of the commission, a perception he feared was reinforced by his own friendship with Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, Noyan Tapan reported on June 25.

Also on June 17, the same day that it ruled to establish the ad hoc commission, the Armenian parliament adopted by a vote of 80 votes in favor and four against a statement enumerating measures the authorities have taken to fulfill the demands outlined in the PACE April resolution, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those demands included the conduct of an independent inquiry into the March 1 violence; the immediate release of opposition supporters detained in the aftermath; and the annulment of legal amendments restricting the right to stage public rallies and demonstrations.

While up to 70 opposition supporters remain in pretrial detention, the parliament voted in the second reading on June 11 to lift those restrictions. Two PACE rapporteurs who visited Armenia on June 16-17 concluded that the Armenian authorities were dragging their feet in complying with the resolution's requirements. But during a vote late on June 25 during its summer session, the PACE declined to discipline Armenia for its perceived failure to meet its demands, instead granting the Armenian authorities six more months to comply fully with the April resolution, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 26. One of the two rapporteurs, former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, reasoned that "two months is not enough time to implement all the changes for which we've called.... We believe that Armenia is going in the right direction, and changes are being made."

On June 20 between 10,000-30,000 people attended a rally in Yerevan in support of Ter-Petrossian, who interpreted that show of support as evidence that the population at large does not believe the official election results that gave Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian over 52 percent of the vote compared to 21.5 percent for Ter-Petrossian. It was the first opposition mass rally for which the municipal authorities granted permission since the restrictions imposed by parliament in the wake of the March violence. Addressing that rally, Ter-Petrossian again demanded the immediate and unconditional release of those of his supporters still in detention as a precondition for "dialogue" with the authorities, and for the holding of preterm parliamentary and presidential elections in order to restore political stability. A follow-up rally is scheduled for July 4.

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