YEREVAN -- Leaders of the two opposition parties in Armenia's parliament have accused a top official of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) of pro-government bias after meeting him to discuss the political situation in the country, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
Senior parliament deputies from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Heritage party said on January 16 that John Prescott, a PACE co-rapporteur on Armenia, rudely brushed aside their concerns about the forthcoming parliamentary elections and human rights abuses.
Prescott came to Yerevan to discuss preparations for the May elections and to assess the Armenian authorities' compliance with a PACE resolution adopted last October.
The resolution urged the authorities to hold "genuinely democratic parliamentary elections," reform the law enforcement and judicial systems, and create a "pluralist media environment." It said this was essential for preventing a repeat of the deadly 2008 street violence in Yerevan after those elections.
Prescott, who served as Britain's deputy prime minister from 1997 to 2007, was due to travel to Armenia with Axel Fischer, the other PACE co-rapporteur. But Fischer canceled his trip at the last minute, citing health reasons.
The British Parliament deputy began the fact-finding visit with a meeting with members of Armenia's parliamentary delegation at PACE. One of them, Dashnaktsutyun's Armen Rustamian, presented the Armenian opposition's unanimous view that large-scale vote rigging would be more difficult if the elections are held only on a party-list basis.
"For some reason, my arguments angered Mr. Prescott and I couldn't understand why," Rustamian told RFE/RL. "The debate between us heated up a little at that point. I couldn't understand why he reacted so emotionally and angrily. Naturally I countered that."
Prescott's ensuing meeting with Heritage's parliamentary faction was also tense.
Stepan Safarian, a faction member, said Prescott promised to communicate the opposition demands for electoral reform to the Strasbourg assembly. But Safarian said Prescott refused to discuss Heritage's concerns about human rights abuses allegedly committed by law enforcement bodies and the controversial criminal investigation into the 2008 unrest.
"He had no desire to listen to us," Zaruhi Postanjian, another Heritage deputy, told RFE/RL. "He said his mission was to document what is going on right now."
"When you present facts or express an opinion and your interlocutor bangs the table with his fist in response, that means he is biased," Postanjian added. "He did not want to hear evidence from us because he would have to evaluate that evidence in his report."
Rustamian, for his part, claimed that Prescott may have secretly promised to assist the Armenian authorities in blocking the voting reform favored by the opposition. "Prescott wants to be a tool in their hands," the normally reserved Dashnaktsutyun leader charged.
Prescott refused to comment when approached by an RFE/RL correspondent in the Armenian parliament.
The PACE representative was due to meet later in the day with leaders of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), a more radical opposition group that has been highly critical of the Council of Europe.
Prescott is to meet on January 17 with President Serzh Sarkisian, parliament speaker Samvel Nikoyan, and Tigran Mukuchian, chairman of the Central Election Commission.
Prescott also agreed to schedule an unplanned meeting with relatives of opposition protesters killed in the March 2008 clashes with security forces. They will likely complain about the results of a fresh inquiry into the unrest that were announced by Armenia's Special Investigative Service (SIS) late last month.
The SIS reaffirmed its earlier claims that the violence was sparked by opposition "rioters" and that security forces were therefore right to open fire on them.
The HAK and Heritage strongly condemned that conclusion. They also criticized PACE for stating in its October resolution that "the chapter on the March 2008 events can finally be considered closed for the [Council of Europe] assembly."
"The [unrest] issue is no longer on the party's agenda," Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Republican Party, told RFE/RL on January 16.
Sahakian also spoke of the "positive work" done by the authorities ahead of the elections. "I don't think that our views are not shared by the PACE co-rapporteurs," he said.
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