A senior United Nations official accused the Armenian authorities of restricting civil liberties and dissenting viewpoints on the airwaves as she ended a fact-finding visit to Yerevan on Friday.
Margaret Sekaggya, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, met senior government and law-enforcement officials, judges, lawmakers as well as opposition leaders and civil society representatives during the five-day trip.
Speaking at a concluding news conference, Sekaggya expressed concern about the authorities' human rights record and, in particular, "significant constraints imposed on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly in Armenia."
"While regulation by the authorities of freedom of assembly is legitimate, I have received reports of unreasonable and arbitrary restrictions being imposed by law enforcement agencies," she said. "In a democratic society, the right to hold peaceful, open and public demonstrations should be available to all individuals without undue restrictions.
"I also note reports of restrictions being imposed upon indoor assemblies such as meetings and conferences, with regard to which human rights defenders have faced difficulties in gaining access to meeting space and facilities."
Sekaggya went on to deplore periodical physical attacks on local journalists and human rights activists. "These cases would seem to illustrate an apparent culture of impunity in Armenia which impinges upon the work of human rights defenders," she said. "This impunity appears to be closely related to the deep-rooted problems within the police system, as well as to the shortcomings of the justice system."
Sekaggya's meetings with opposition representatives in Yerevan focused on the fate of more than a dozen members and supporters of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) who were arrested after the 2008 presidential election and remain in prison. She had a separate meeting with their relatives.
The U.N. official was careful not to describe the jailed oppositionists as political prisoners. "We have not yet been able to describe whether they are political prisoners," she said. "We need more facts, we need to look at everything in detail."
She noted at the same time that she emphasized to Armenian officials the need for "prompt and transparent investigations" into deadly street violence that was sparked by the disputed election.
Sekaggya further endorsed strong domestic and international criticism of the newly enacted controversial amendments to an Armenian law on broadcasting. "I would like to add my voice to those who have already expressed serious concerns about the amendments to the Law on Television and Radio," she said. "If signed into law by the President of Armenia, these amendments will further restrict and seriously hamper the plurality of voices and opinions available to Armenian society."
When told by journalists that President Serzh Sarkisian already signed the bill on Thursday, Sekaggya suggested that its opponents appeal to Armenia's Constitutional Court if they see unconstitutional provisions in it.
Sarkisian and his loyal parliament majority pushed the amendments through the National Assembly last week despite serious objections voiced not only by local media groups but the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United States and Human Rights Watch.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty