Free By The Grace Of Sargsyan

by Arpi Harutyunyan

Transitions Online
nguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrIssue=332&N rSection=1&NrArticle=20737
July 30 2009
Czech Republic

Armenian analysts and politicians disagree on the motivation and
possible consequences of the presidential amnesty.

YEREVAN | The amnesty extended to most of the Armenian oppositionists
jailed for taking part in violent anti-government demonstrations
18 months ago was a gesture of good will and a call to dialogue by
President Serzh Sargsyan. That is the view of the ruling Republican
Party and most other parliamentary parties. Opponents outside
parliament, headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, claim
the authorities’ cognizance of the illegality of sending opposition
supporters to jail pushed Sargsyan to free them, with a nudge from
the gadfly Council of Europe.

Sargsyan appears to have smoothed the often ragged relations with the
Council of Europe, the continent’s largest human rights monitoring and
enforcement body. But his political opponents have not been mollified
by the amnesty, which they say was a sham because those imprisoned
had committed no crimes.

The president in military dress and thoughtful mood. Photo: Armenian

This spring, more than a year after 10 people died in protests against
the election of Sargsyan and more than 100 opposition supporters were
jailed, signs of a thaw began to emerge.

During celebrations of First Republic Day on 28 May, the president
said he was ready to appeal to the parliament with an amnesty request
if asked to do so by political forces and civil society.

Some observers had predicted such a move, among them political analyst
Alexander Iskandaryan, who directs the Caucasus Institute think tank.

"I believe the authorities should not see them as a threat anymore," he
said after the amnesty was announced, referring to the oppositionists
jailed after the violence of 1-2 March 2008. "It’s a step that will
relieve the domestic tensions created after the 1 March events."

The government had come under strong pressure from the Council of
Europe. Co-rapporteurs on Armenia for the Parliamentary Assembly of
the Council of Europe, John Prescott and George Colombier held more
than a dozen meetings with Armenian officials, and Armenia was warned
it could be stripped of its right to vote in the assembly. After
PACE passed three resolutions urging Armenian authorities to release
all political prisoners, the government amended two articles of the
criminal code, on usurpation of power and organizing mass disorder,
under which several of the accused had been charged.

Early in May, Colombier and Prescott expressed satisfaction over the
changes to the criminal code but repeated PACE’s urging to release
all the jailed protesters who had not been convicted of violent crimes.

At that point the government had little alternative, political
scientist Abraham Gasparyan says, and its only option was to make
a move that would satisfy both the public and the international

"Armenia’s foreign policies have a European vector, and it could not
ignore a Council of Europe demand like that," he said.


On 19 June a special session of the National Assembly approved
Sargsyan’s request for a general amnesty by a vote of 98 to 1, with
three abstentions.

Even though more than 2,000 prisoners were eligible to be amnestied,
the focus of public attention fell on the 110 or so arrested during
the March 2008 protests and on several prominent opposition figures
who had not been charged but were under official suspicion of helping
foment unrest. By late July nearly 700 prisoners had been freed.

The jailed opposition figures included former high officials and
current parliamentarians who had appeared in court charged with
instigating, organizing, and leading the protests that got out of
control on 1-2 March 2008, two weeks after a disputed presidential

After losing that election to Sargsyan, Ter-Petrosian contested the
legitimacy of the result and asked his supporters to launch a series
of rallies and sit-ins demanding Sargsyan’s impeachment. Early in the
morning of 1 March, saying the opposition’s 11 daylong sit-ins were
unsanctioned and claiming to have information that some protesters
were concealing weapons in preparation for a coup, police dispersed
the crowds on the capital’s Liberty Square.

The opposition supporters moved to another square where they erected
barricades and then, authorities say, assaulted police. The resulting
street fighting left 10 dead, including two soldiers. A series of
arrests followed the clashes; more than 110 people were charged with
owning unauthorized weapons, as well as instigating, organizing,
and leading mass disorders. The opposition viewed the arrests of its
activists as political persecution and insisted its jailed supporters
were political prisoners.

The most prominent prisoners included parliamentarians Myasnik
Malkhasyan and Hakob Hakobyan, former Foreign Minister Alexander
Arzumanyan, and the former head of the interior ministry’s security
service, Suren Sirunyan, all of whom received jail terms of four to
five years.

The amnesty also applies to those were charged over the 2008 violence
but never brought to trial, if they report to authorities by 31
July. One prominent protest leader who did so, newspaper editor Nikol
Pashinyan, however, was arrested after he emerged from hiding and
reported to a police station on 1 July.

The amnesty did not concern the cases of 17 imprisoned politicians
whose sentences exceeded five years, including Sasun Mikayelyan,
who was sentenced to eight years in prison for possession of an
unauthorized weapon.

The amnesty also set free prisoners age 60 and older, juveniles
who committed crimes before the age of 18, and those charged with
election fraud.

Most Armenian political forces, including the parliamentary and some
non-parliamentary parties, welcomed Sargsyan’s move as a significant
step toward the building of democratic institutions and discovering
the truth about the post-election protests.


Where analysts and politicians disagree is on the question of
Sargsyan’s motivation for freeing the opposition protesters at
this time.

Rafik Petrosyan, a prominent member of the ruling Republican Party of
Armenia, said there was certainly "some connection between the PACE
demands and the pardon. … We are a member of the Council of Europe
and need to keep to its rules, whether we wish to or not, or we can
leave. PACE demanded an amnesty specifying that it concern only the
dissidents [those detained for political views], while keeping in
prison persons who committed offenses under criminal law. The state
then took its step, choosing something in the middle," Petrosyan said.

Petrosyan’s colleague, Republican Party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov,
however, said on 24 June that "the amnesty was granted for our country,
not the European structures."

"I share my colleagues’ views that the page has not been completely
turned on the 1 March events by the amnesty, but I’d like to add
that the country has avoided crisis during the year and a half
following the events, and there are no grounds for political tensions
[now]. That the opposition plans new rallies is its right, I believe,
and it is clear already the [opposition] Armenian National Congress
is preparing for 2012 parliamentary elections."

Political analyst Gasparyan argues that Sargsyan finally acted to ease
a multitude of burdens that had descended on his shoulders since his
disputed election.

"Despite the number of reforms initiated by President Sargsyan to
improve the efficiency of the political system over the last year
and a half, the period of his rule so far has been full of dramatic
social developments, including the 1 March events, the negative
response of the international community, the economic crisis, the
unfair elections. A humanitarian move of the kind was therefore a
necessity to ease public tension amid all those calamities, above all
for the sake of keeping power in [his own] hands," the analyst said.

Opposition groups viewed the authorities’ handling of the imprisoned
demonstrators in a more critical light. The extra-parliamentary
parties crowed at scoring their biggest victory over the regime. Levon
Zurabyan, coordinator of Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress,
stated on 20 June that there was nothing to forgive or pardon the
released prisoners for because they had committed no crimes.

"We believe the authorities are not aiming to create an atmosphere of
national reconciliation or even to ease the political atmosphere. In
fact, semi-measures like this will only intensify the confrontation,"
Zurabyan said.

"The charges against us were not proved in court. This was a show
that lasted a year, with false witnesses and fabricated evidence. This
so-called amnesty is not comprehensive and many of our friends are in
jail, so we will go on struggling!" former Foreign Minister Arzumanyan,
one of the major organizers of the post-election protests, stated
after his release.

Armenian Foreign Ministry photo of Alexander Arzumanyan, who
served as minister from 1996 to 1998 during the presidency of Levon
Ter-Petrosian. Arzumanyan was jailed for his part in the March 2008
anti-government protests and released under the June amnesty law.

Responding to opposition accusations of the illegality of the
detentions and trials, Sharmazanov of the Republican Party claimed
that "the 1 March events were prepared well ahead. The facts brought
out in court proved that some of the defendants kept large amounts
of explosives and weapons in their homes in preparation for a coup
d’état. Who, if not the person making a coup attempt, should stand

On 17 May a court heard a tape of a phone call prosecutors said was
recorded on 1 March 2008 in which Arzumanyan allegedly urged other
opposition activists to continue the disorderly protests.

Most of those charged over the March 2008 violence are now
free. Meanwhile, the extra-parliamentary opposition continues to demand
Sargsyan’s impeachment and to reject any possibility of dialogue
with the authorities; this position was reiterated by Ter-Petrosian
on 2 July, countering officials’ claim that the amnesty had created
a forum for dialogue.

Karapet Rubinyan of the Armenian National Congress, a member of
parliament during Ter-Petrosian’s years in office (1991-1998) said,
"The authorities should not expect those released to be grateful to
them. On the contrary, those who were arrested and charged in regard
to the 1 March events will sue them after their release."

No such lawsuits have been filed against authorities.

The ANC, though, believes the amnesty was, as coordinator Zurabyan
put it, "a serious victory over the incumbent regime that came after
a year and a half of consistent struggle and the pressure imposed by
the Council of Europe," rather than a manifestation of the authorities’
political will.

Political analyst Gasparyan sees the amnesty if anything as a boost to
Sargsyan. The doubts of the non-parliamentary opposition, Ter-Petrosian
in particular, that the authorities would have the will to go through
with an amnesty proved wrong, he said.

The government’s recent decisions paid off, Gasparyan said, when at
its summer session PACE welcomed the amnesty and the changes to the
criminal code. The assembly’s resolution also repeated its calls
for an unbiased investigation of the 2008 unrest and for Armenian
authorities to respect the principle of freedom of assembly, and, amid
allegations of irregularities during the Yerevan municipal election
in May, urged the government to make cleaner elections a priority.

Arpi Harutyunyan is a reporter for the non-commercial news site