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Armenian Minister, Security Service Chief Clash At Cabinet Meeting

YEREVAN -- The head of Armenia's National Security Service (NSS) has objected to the country's attempts to bring its laws on freedom of assembly closer to European standards, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

NSS Director Gorik Hakobian expressed serious concern about a package of amendments drafted by the Justice Ministry to more than a dozen laws including those regulating the crowd-control powers of Armenian law-enforcement bodies.

The draft amendments were presented by Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian at a weekly session of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian's cabinet on February 3.

The package of amendments stems from Yerevan's pledges to bring its laws on freedom of assembly in greater conformity with those in Europe. Experts from the Council of Europe and the OSCE have reportedly endorsed Armenia's amendments.

Hakobian complained that he was able to familiarize himself with the changes only hours before the meeting and said Europeans must not tell Armenian security bodies how to respond to antigovernment demonstrations.

"Why should European experts tell us how security forces should act in emergency situations?" he told Tovmasian.

Hakobian was also unhappy with use of the word "participation" with regard to riot police and other security forces.

"We don't participate [in rallies]," he said. "Participating means giving speeches, applauding, waving posters. Can we attend, if there are mass riots and, God forbid, thousands of deaths? I specifically want to get an answer to the following question: 'Do those European experts agree that we have to be present or not?'"

Tovmasian, who was appointed justice minister less than two months ago, responded by dismissing Hakobian's references to foreign experts. He said Hakobian should look at article 29 of the constitution that guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly.

The clause also stipulates that law enforcement and judicial authorities can limit that freedom only in accordance with the law.

Journalists watching the cabinet meeting from monitors in an adjacent room could not hear the rest of the tense exchange between the two officials. Microphones in the cabinet auditorium were again turned on only when Sarkisian intervened in the debate.

"Mr. Hakobian, there are clauses that need to be edited and we will definitely revise this bill together with all interested bodies and submit it to the National Assembly for consideration," Sarkisian said. "I am sure that there will also be many queries about this draft law at the National Assembly because it has a serious political content."

Armenia's law on public gatherings was significantly toughened following the March 1-2, 2008 postelection unrest in Yerevan. The authorities partly repealed those restrictions later in the face of strong criticism from the Council of Europe.

Armenian officials have also pledged to prevent a repeat of the street violence in 2008 that left eight opposition protesters and two security personnel dead. The authorities' handling of those opposition protests has been strongly criticized by domestic and international human rights groups.

Hakobian defended the police and NSS actions during the unrest as he objected to the proposed amendments.