Their freedom was granted on the basis of an amnesty approved by the National Assembly three days earlier.
More than 50 supporters of opposition leader and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian who were arrested, tried, and jailed in the wake of the disputed February 2008 presidential election, are eligible for release.
The amnesty is, however, unlikely to alleviate the deep-rooted tensions and enmity between the authorities and the opposition.
Question Of Wrongdoing
Rumors of the impending amnesty first surfaced one month ago. On May 20, the newspaper "Chorrord ishkhanutiun" (Fourth Power) reported that President Serzh Sarkisian had recently told close associates -- including Bako Sahakian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic - that he regretted that some of his former comrades in arms from the Karabakh war were in jail and added that he would take legal steps to bring about their release.
The following day, Armenian parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian was quoted as saying that Sarkisian planned to announce on May 28 -- the anniversary of the 1918 proclamation of an independent Armenian republic -- an amnesty for oppositionists jailed in connection with the postelection violence in Yerevan during the night of March 1-2, 2008.
On May 22, however, Abrahamian's spokesman said Abrahamian merely expressed his hope that Sarkisian would avail himself of his constitutional right to declare a general amnesty.
Abrahamian's initial prediction met with approval from several opposition parties. Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) leader Aram Karapetian told kavkaz-uzel.ru on May 23 that for the Armenian authorities, an amnesty for political prisoners is "the only way out" of the dead-end situation they created by last year's crackdown.
But former Deputy Prosecutor General Gagik Djangirian, who was detained on February 23, 2008, after publicly affirming his support for Ter-Petrossian, argued that an amnesty by its nature is granted to persons who have committed a criminal offense. He said he and other jailed Ter-Petrossian supporters did not do so, and therefore qualify as "political prisoners."
Independent parliament deputy Viktor Dallakian said on June 17 that Jahangirian, who is serving a three-year term for "resisting the police," and former Minister for Tax Revenues Smbat Ayvazian, who was arrested on February 25, 2008, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment on the same charge, are eligible for amnesty.
Presenting Sarkisian's bill to lawmakers on June 19, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian confirmed that it will apply to 90 percent of the jailed oppositionists one way or another. But he could not say how many of them would be released from prison in the coming weeks. Up to 2,000 people -- almost half the current prison population -- serving prison sentences for crimes not related to politics will also be eligible for amnesty.
According to Zaruhi Postanjian, a prominent trial attorney and parliament deputy from the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, only 34 Ter-Petrossian supporters will be set free as a result of the amnesty. Postanjian was the only deputy to vote against the bill.
Stepan Safarian, another Zharangutiun lawmaker, said the bill does not fully meet the requirements of successive Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolutions adopted over the past year. He pointed out that the resolutions demanded the immediate release of all persons who did not commit acts of violence during the night of March 1-2.
The PACE has also strongly condemned court verdicts based solely on police testimony. It will again discuss Armenia's compliance with its previous resolutions at its summer session in Strasbourg later this week.
Both Danielian and his predecessor, David Harutiunian, who now heads the Armenian delegation at the PACE, dismissed Safarian's objections. "Frankly speaking, I wouldn’t want to link this with the [PACE] resolutions," said Harutiunian. "I think this is a matter of our domestic policy."
The adopted bill makes clear that only those oppositionists who were sentenced to up to five years in prison and have already served one-third of their sentences will be released. Of the four men sentenced then released on June 22, parliamentarians Hakob Hakobian and Miasnik Malkhasian and former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian received a five-year sentence, and opposition activist Suren Sirunian a four-year sentence.
A third lawmaker, Sasun Mikaelian, was sentenced on June 22 to eight years in jail on charges of organizing mass unrest and illegal possession of arms. He sang patriotic songs loudly as the judge pronounced the sentence.
As the National Assembly debated the bill on June 19, more than 100 relatives and supporters of the jailed oppositionists gathered outside the parliament building to demand the release of all "political prisoners." Police warned the protesters that their action was illegal but did not attempt to disperse them.
Aram Manukian, a senior member of Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK) who also took part in the June 19 protest, strongly criticized the terms of the pardon. "The authorities are proving that they are scared," he said. "They are prodding the people to be active, to stay in the streets, and to revolt."
Just The Facts?
But independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian was quoted on May 29 by Eurasia View as suggesting that, on the contrary, President Sarkisian believes his position has strengthened in recent months given that attendance at Ter-Petrossian's periodic rallies is dwindling.
According to official returns, the HAK polled only 17.6 percent of the vote in the May 31 Yerevan municipal elections that were marred by egregious procedural violations.
Just days after the Yerevan election, Sarkisian press spokesman Samvel Farmanian told RFE/RL that Sarkisian had concluded that the independent fact-finding group of experts tasked with evaluating the findings of the ad hoc parliamentary commission set up last summer to investigate the post-presidential election violence and the events that immediately preceded it had proven a failure.
On June 8, Sarkisian issued a decree abolishing the fact-finding group. Its first report differed radically in key respects from the conclusions reached by the ad hoc parliament commission. Its chairman has since submitted to the ad hoc commission the video materials, recordings, and written documents the group collected since its creation last fall.
Whether that material will occasion a reassessment of the commission's findings to date or will be quietly disposed of as contradicting those findings remains to be seen.