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Armenian Opposition Holds Talks With Government Despite Threats

Representatives of the opposition Armenian National Congress arriving for a meeting with government negotiators on August 16.
Representatives of the opposition Armenian National Congress arriving for a meeting with government negotiators on August 16.
YEREVAN -- The government and the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) have continued negotiations despite threats to halt the current dialogue over the arrest of several HAK activists, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Representatives of the HAK and Armenia's ruling coalition held their fifth round of negotiations in Yerevan on August 16, which they said focused on the August 9 incident in the capital that led to the arrest of seven young members of the opposition alliance.

Four of those opposition supporters were set free late last week, but the others were remanded in pretrial detention on charges of assaulting police who were on patrol.

In a joint statement read by chief HAK negotiator Levon Zurabian after the two-hour meeting, the two sides said they discussed the matter and "tentatively" agreed to continue the discussion at their next talks set for August 19.

"We also agreed to refrain from commenting on details of our discussion of the incident for now," Zurabian read from the statement.

Zurabian refused to answer questions from journalists, saying that is also part of the agreement reached by the parties.

HAK spokesman Arman Musinian on August 15 described the continuing detention of the three HAK activists as an "extremely serious obstacle" to further talks between the two sides. He said the opposition bloc could pull out of the dialogue if the three were not set free by early on August 16.

Meanwhile, the police also brought criminal charges against three of the four freed oppositionists. Each could face up to five years' imprisonment if found guilty.

The most serious accusations have been leveled against Tigran Arakelian, one of the three HAK activists stil in jail. Arakelian will face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

Lawyers for the three detainees have asked the Appeals Court to overturn a lower court ruling that allowed the police to keep their clients in detention for up to two months.

The opposition activists backed by the HAK leadership say they were beaten up and arrested after trying to stop a police patrol arbitrarily searching another young man in downtown Yerevan.

But the police insist the seven men were arrested for insulting and attacking the policemen.

Davit Harutiunian, who heads the ruling coalition's negotiating team, said last week that he is inclined to trust in the police version of events. On August 16, he stood by that statement.

Harutiunian also told RFE/RL that his delegation has prepared a 130-page written response to HAK demands for the holding of early elections. But he said it was not discussed at the latest meeting.

The HAK representatives sought to substantiate those demands for early elections with an 85-page document that was submitted at their previous meeting with the coalition representatives held on August 9, just hours before the incident involving the young activists.

According to Hakob Badalian, a media columnist and political commentator, the decision to continue the dialogue heralds a major shift in the HAK's stance.

He argued that the opposition bloc has previously refused to engage in direct contact with the government before the release of all individuals it regards as political prisoners.

"In effect, the [HAK] is really retreating from its earlier stance.... There are again political prisoners in Armenia but the [HAK] continues to negotiate," Badalian told RFE/RL.

Badalian claimed that the HAK is also backtracking on its assurances that the dialogue will be transparent.

"The meetings seem to be entering some closed cycle that effectively contradicts the statements about open dialogue that were made by the HAK," he said.

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