| By Zhanna
Institute for War and Peace Reporting
convicts say they'd rather be executed than sentenced to life in prison.
Armenia's decision to outlaw capital punishment is being seen as a
fate worse than death by dozens of prisoners currently awaiting execution in Armenian
The republic's new penal code, which became law this month, brings
Armenia into line with the Council of Europe's preconditions for membership.
it still allows for a sentence of capital punishment to be handed down for certain
serious crimes committed before August 1, 2003 - namely "terrorist"
acts and premeditated murders.
Prisoners currently being held on death
row reacted with fury to the news that President Robert Kocharyan had commuted
their sentences to life imprisonment, and went on a hunger strike for four days
earlier this month.
Avetik Ishkhanyan, chairman of the Helsinki Committee
of Armenia, who visited Nubarash prison's death row, told IWPR that the inmates
had been hoping their cases would be reconsidered following the repeal of capital
punishment. "They think that life imprisonment is worse than death,"
One prisoner, Artur Mkrtchyan, facing execution for murdering
five soldiers while he was doing national service, has appealed many times against
his conviction and now feels profoundly disappointed.
was unfair to begin with. And now they have replaced it with another sentence,
which is just as harsh," said the prisoner's father.
sentences have been issued here for decades, they were never enforced after independence
The new penal code came as a result of protracted talks with
the Council of Europe, which demanded a ban on capital punishment as a condition
of Armenia's accession in 2001.
However, the decision cannot yet be considered
final, as the Armenian parliament is yet to ratify the Sixth Protocol of the European
Convention, which outlaws the death penalty.
Ratification is expected
this autumn and observers do not anticipate any problems, as the majority of legislators
side with the government on the matter.
Meanwhile, the new penal code,
in which the harshest punishment is life imprisonment, has left open the option
of applying the death penalty for certain types of crime committed before August
1, 2003 - such as "terrorist" attacks, abuse of minors, and premeditated
Analysts believe that this exception relates to an armed group,
led by Nairy Hunanyan, which gunned down the PrimeMinister, Speaker of Parliament
and six other deputies and high-ranking government officials, in an attack on
the Armenian Assembly on October 27, 1999.
The families of the victims
and fellow lawmakers are demanding that Hunanyan and his group be sentenced to
However, the new parliament appears to be prepared to fully ban
the death penalty once the sixth protocol is ratified.
Deputy Speaker, used to support the idea of keeping capital punishment exclusively
for Hunanyan's group, but has since resigned himself to the inevitability of a
"Memories of the October 27 tragedy still linger, but
we cannot afford to make exceptions. We have to give up the death penalty in good
faith if we want to remain in the Council of Europe," he said.
had enough time to sentence these people to death after the tragedy, but it's
too late now," he said, adding that membership of the Council of Europe was
far too important to risk losing.
Last September, the Parliamentary Assembly
of the Council of Europe (PACE) gave Armenia until July 1, 2003, to close the
legal loophole that allowed the death penalty to be applied to Hunanyan's group.
Later on, PACE granted Armenia's request to extend the deadline by another six
"Our government convinced PACE that the political situation
in Armenia had changed, and time was not yet ripe for abandoning the death penalty,"
Torosyan said. "They agreed to put it back until the end of the year."
The Armenian government named January 2004 as the deadline for a "final
and irrevocable" repeal of the death penalty during its talks with the AGO
group, a special delegation of the Council of Europe Cabinet of Ministers monitoring
Armenia's membership compliance.
Parliamentary speaker Artur Bagdasaryan
and Torosyan personally assured Council of Europe officials that Armenia would
stand by its pledge.
However, the Spravedlivost (Justice) opposition alliance,
headed by Stepan Demirchyan, the son of Karen Demirchyan, killed in the 1999 attack
on Parliament, believe it is premature for Armenia to end capital punishment.
It believes far too many serious crimes are committed with impunity in Armenia
as it is.
Many ordinary Armenians are of the same opinion. "I am
against the death penalty," said Anahit Egiazaryan, 48, a teacher, "because
the life of an innocent person may be taken as a result of a judicial mistake.
"But for nations where citizens have no legal protection, the death
penalty is the only solution. The sooner Armenia becomes a civilized country,
the sooner we will be able to abandon the death penalty."
Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net,
covers issues of concern throughout the former Soviet republics, as well as offering
journalism training. ArmeniaNow reporters frequently contribute to IWPR publications.)