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New Probe Announced Into Armenian Postelection Violence

Opposition demonstrations following the election ended in violence.
Opposition demonstrations following the election ended in violence.
In mid-June, under pressure from the international community, the Armenian parliament set up an ad hoc commission tasked with investigating the March 1-2 clashes in Yerevan between supporters of defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and security forces that resulted in 10 deaths.

It was initially envisaged that the commission would present its findings by October 25. On October 13, however, its members formally asked parliament to extend that deadline for two months to enable them to incorporate the findings of a smaller, more independent fact-finding group that is to conduct a parallel investigation.

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 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in a resolution adopted in mid-April. But following a visit to Yerevan in July, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg proposed the creation of the alternative fact-finding group.

RFE/RL's Armenian Service on July 16 quoted former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who heads the Armenian PACE delegation, as explaining that Hammarberg wanted the collection of facts and evidence relating to the violence to be a separate process, entrusted to the new body, while the ad hoc parliamentary commission would merely deliver a "political evaluation" based on those findings. Harutiunian said the new body should "consist exclusively of apolitical experts who enjoy public trust. Experts who would be chosen by all political forces."

The ad hoc 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 also to invite to participate in its work all political forces that received at least 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, as well as defeated candidates in the February 19 presidential elections, including Ter-Petrossian, or their representatives.

Both Ter-Petrossian and Zharangutiun (Heritage), the sole opposition party represented in parliament, decided against participating in the work of the ad hoc commission, however, arguing that it would not prove capable of delivering an independent and objective assessment of events. On October 2, Zharangutiun faction member Vardan Khachatrian denounced the findings of the ad hoc commission to date as "a farce" intended to exonerate the authorities of any responsibility for the deaths and injuries, Noyan Tapan reported.

Khachatrian also said on October 2 that Zharangutiun plans to launch an independent probe, with the specific intention of answering the as-yet-open question: who issued the order to security forces to open fire on the protesters? He said Zharangutiun will nominate a representative to the new, smaller body, which will reportedly comprise two representatives each from the government and from the opposition, plus an expert from the office of human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian (no relation to David), who incurred criticism from outgoing President Robert Kocharian in April for his trenchant and objective 80-page report on the chain of events that culminated in the March violence. Other opposition parties have not yet commented on the planned new probe.

The Armenian authorities have also asked foreign governments and international organizations to nominate representatives to the new fact-finding group, but to date only the United States has done so, dispatching to Yerevan last week three experts who participated in an independent inquiry into the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The three held discussions with members of the ad hoc commission; one of them met on October 7 with Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, who went on record in March as attributing the violence to Ter-Petrossian's use of mass hypnosis and other "psychological tricks" on his supporters.

Speaking to journalists on October 13, ad hoc commission member Artashes Shahbazian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, one of the four parties in the coalition government, appealed to the opposition to provide materials for the ongoing investigation. "If you have facts that [you think] we are trying to conceal, I ask you to publicize or present them," Noyan Tapan quoted him as saying.

It is not clear whether the Armenian authorities' delay in setting up the alternative fact-finding group proposed by Hammarberg was the result of inertia or a deliberate attempt to prolong the investigation beyond the original October 25 deadline. But the continued uncertainty benefits the authorities insofar as it provides a pretext for keeping in pretrial detention several prominent Ter-Petrossian associates arrested in the wake of the March violence, including former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian.