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Prominent opposition members face trial

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1 March 012.jpg
The Guardian reports that seven detained opposition activists, among them a former foreign minister and three MPs, will go on trial this week charged with the "usurpation of state power" following February's disputed presidential election in the country. Following clashes on 1 March with security services which left at least 10 dead, a 20-day state of emergency was declared and many prominent opposition activists and supporters of the country's first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, were detained. 

Ter-Petrossian, himself accused of falsifying the 1996 presidential election which secured his second term in office, returned to the political scene last year after an absence of nearly a decade in what was widely seen as an attempt to prevent his successor, Robert Kocharian, from handing over power to the prime minister, Serge Sarkisian. The Guardian calls the trial "one of the biggest [...] in its [Armenia's] short history as an independent country"
Ter-Petrosyan's supporters, who blamed voting irregularities for the election of President Serzh Sargsyan, began protesting in Freedom Square in mid-February. By night, about 1,000 camped out in freezing temperatures. By day, crowds of up to 50,000 - estimates vary wildly - participated in rallies.

Tensions rose further during the last week of February, and on 1 March police entered the square, claiming they were searching for ammunition. There were running battles through the streets, culminating in the police opening fire, with each side claiming that the other launched the first missile. Ten people, including two police officers, were killed.

More than 70 protesters have already been jailed but it is the seven awaiting trial this week who face the main charges.

Sargsyan claimed 52.8% of the vote, enough to avoid the run-off that some international observers believe should have been held. The bloodshed has obscured argument over vote-rigging. 

With the opposition continuing to lay blame for the political situation in Armenia on the international community which initially gave the 19 February presidential election a relatively clean bill of health, controversy continues to surround an ostensibly independent committee established to investigate the circumstances surrounding the 1 March clashes. The Council of Europe is also concerned by the lack of any credible evidence for charging the seven with attempting to violently overthrow the government. 

Interestingly, with a government-imposed media blackout accompanying the state of emergency, blogging came of age in Armenia and established itself as the new samizdat, opposition supporters have set up a blog to cover the trial. As The Guardian suggests, with the independence of the judiciary questionable to say the least, all signs are that the international community will closely monitor the trial to see whether the authorities in Yerevan are prepared to live up to their international commitments.  
Photo: 1 March Opposition Demonstration, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008



Onnik Krikorian | December 16, 2008 12:49 PM | Reply

In related news, RFE/RL reports that criticism by the extra-parliamentary opposition of the initial statement from international observers following the election has again been rejected by a senior official from the OSCE.

In their first report on the February 19 vote, a team of international observers mostly representing the OSCE concluded that it was conducted “mostly in accordance” with democratic standards. . The conclusion gave a major boost to the international legitimacy of Serzh Sarkisian’s controversial election win, even if the OSCE mission somewhat backtracked on it in its final report issued in May.

Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition presidential candidate, and his top aides have repeatedly charged that the observers’ initial findings effectively gave the Armenian authorities the green light to use lethal force against opposition protesters demanding a re-run of the vote. An opposition task force investigating the March 1 clashes in Yerevan arrived at the same conclusion in a report issued earlier this month.

Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, the OSCE’s secretary general, rejected the opposition criticism as he spoke at a news conference held in Yerevan after his talks with Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian. “Sometimes people get confused because they do not see that this [OSCE-led election observation] is not about saying whether an election is good or bad, whether it was free and fair or not,” he said. “This is about saying that an election has been a further stepping stone in a process of improving the implementation of the [OSCE] standards. And this happens, I can tell you, in all the elections which the OSCE is invited to monitor.”

“The reports which we produce are not tools to give good or bad marks, they are tools to work together in ensuring a continuous process of democratic consolidation and successful democratic transition,” added Brichambaut. link

Onnik Krikorian | December 19, 2008 6:47 AM | Reply

Indicating how much the international community is interested in the post-election situation in Armenia, RFE/RL has this story:

A key panel of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has urged the Strasbourg-based body to impose sanctions on Armenia because of the continuing imprisonment of dozens of opposition members whom it for the first time described as “political prisoners.”


A new resolution drafted by the committee and made public on Thursday reads: “Notwithstanding positive developments in some areas, the Assembly finds it unacceptable that persons have been charged and deprived of their liberty for political motivations and that political prisoners exist in Armenia.”


The draft resolution says there are “strong indications” that these criminal cases were politically motivated. “It follows that persons convicted on these charges can be considered political prisoners,” it adds, rejecting Armenian government claims to the contrary. link

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