Institute for War and Peace Reporting, UK
Jan 3 2007


Armenia: Move to Abolish Controversial Legislation


Critics say article in country's criminal code could be used to
detain anti-government protestors.

By Gayane Mkrtchian in Yerevan (CRS No. 425 03-Jan-08)

With presidential elections in Armenia less than two months away, the
opposition is seeking the abolition of a controversial article in the
criminal code that it says can be employed by the authorities to
stifle protest.

According to Article 301 of the Armenian criminal code, publicly
calling for a violent seizure of power or the overthrow of the
constitutional system is punishable by a fine equivalent to 300-500
times the minimum salary in Armenia (about 25-40,000 US dollars),
detention for two to three months or imprisonment for up to three
years.

Zaruhi Postanjian, an opposition member of parliament with the
Heritage Party, is seeking to have the article removed from the
criminal code by means of a special draft bill being put before
parliament.

`Where is the line drawn?' asked Postanjian. `When does a person's
statement or public appearance constitute a punishable act?'

`It violates and restricts citizens' right to free expression and is
an instrument in the hands of the authorities, being used to silence
opposition figures,' she said.

Postanjian says Article 301 violates rights guaranteed under Article
27 of the Armenian constitution and Article 10 of the European
Convention on Human Rights.

`Prosecuting a person under Article 301 is a gross violation of his
or her right to free expression,' she said. `Article 3 of the
Armenian constitution says, `The state ensures that citizens'
fundamental rights and freedoms are protected in line with principles
and norms of the international law.''

However, government supporters respond that citizens' rights are
protected by the constitution and that the article defends the state
against the possibility of violent opposition.

Aram Safarian of the pro-government Prosperous Armenia faction in
parliament says scrapping the article would `pitch the country into
anarchy'.

`We do not live in a country where the authorities demonstrate an
inclination towards violence,' agreed Armen Ashotian, a deputy with
the governing Republican Party.

`Even if the bill is passed [to abolish the article], the president
won't be able to sign it, because it is unconstitutional.'

Ashotian cited Article 43 of the constitution, which says that basic
rights and freedoms can be restricted in the interests of state
security and maintaining public order.

To the disappointment of its supporters, the bill is unlikely to be
debated in parliament before March, meaning the article will still be
in force in the run-up to the presidential elections due on February
19.

The article has been employed on several occasions in the last few
years, on each occasion when the political temperature has been high
in Armenia.

In the spring of 2004, police arrested a number of opposition
activists at protest rallies in Yerevan, citing Article 301.

The previous year, several people in the town of Armavir were
arrested on the same charge. Among them was Azat Gasparian, 45, a
lawyer, who played an active role in the rallies protesting against
the presidential election of 2003.

He and four friends were found guilty under Article 301 and sentenced
to two months in the harsh Nubarashen prison after attempting to
ferry busloads of people from Armavir to Yerevan to take part in a
rally.

While Gasparian is still a prominent opposition activist, every time
a rally is due to take place he is summoned to a police station and
warned that he may be `disturbing public order'.

`They warn me that I should not go too far and threaten to stitch up
a case against me up if I do,' he said.

Independent parliamentarian Viktor Dallakian also fell victim to
Article 301 when he addressed a public rally in March 2004, at which
he said that the Armenian people had the power to get rid of the
governing authorities.

`I did not call for a violent overthrow of the constitutional
regime,' said Dallakian. `I was released only after the visit of
Vladimir Pryakhin, head of the OSCE office in Armenia, to the
prosecutor's office.'

Another opposition parliamentarian, chairman of the
National-Democratic Party Shavarsh Kocharian, also said he had been
charged under Article 301. After the presidential election in 1996,
he was accused of attempting to organize a coup d'etat and faced the
same charge following the April 12, 2004 events.

In 2006, charges were laid against Zhirair Sefilian, a veteran of the
Nagorny Karabakh war and founder of the movement Armenian Volunteers
Association, and against fellow veteran Vardan Malkhasian.

Sefilian had said at a meeting of the association, in reference to
the seven Azerbaijani territories around Nagorny Karabakh, now under
the control of the Armenian side, `We will break the heads of those
who try to surrender the liberated territories.'

Lawyer Vahe Grigorian, who acts for Sefilian, said in his defence,
`However harsh, the statement cannot be interpreted as a call for a
violent seizure of power. However, this did not stop them from
charging them under Article 301. They are political prisoners, who
are being prosecuted for their opinions and activities, rather than
for a criminal offence.'

The two men are still in prison.

Postanjian says she is trying to enlist the help of international
organisations to get Article 301 abolished, and has also secured the
help of Armenian human rights ombudsman as mediator.

`The human rights defender has applied to the Venice Commission [of
the Council of Europe], asking for its opinion on the article in the
shortest time possible,' said Postanjian.

Dallakian says there are two ways to solve the issue - either to
abolish the article altogether or reword it to make it less
ambiguous.

`It should be more clearly written what is meant by `calls' [to
overthrow the authorities],' he said. `Is it when people say `let's
take up arms and give them hell', or when they just talk about `armed
struggle'? There must be absolute clarity, otherwise you may be
accused of attempting to overthrow the constitutional regime with one
loud sneeze.'

Gayane Mkrtchian is a correspondent with ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan