Human Rights Defender, Activists Condemn ‘Exploiting’ POWs Issue in ‘Toxic’ Election Campaign

A woman casts her ballot during the 2018 parliamentary elections in Armenia
A woman casts her ballot during the 2018 parliamentary elections in Armenia

A woman casts her ballot during the 2018 parliamentary elections in Armenia

YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—Armenia’s human rights defender, Arman Tatoyan, has accused Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his political opponents of resorting to inflammatory rhetoric in their election campaigns, saying that could deepen a political crisis in the country.

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Tatoyan singled out Pashinyan’s pledges to “purge” the state bureaucracy and wage “political vendettas” against local government officials supporting the Armenian opposition.

The ombudsman issued another statement the following morning urging election contenders to stop exploiting the issue of Armenian prisoners still held by Azerbaijan for political purposes. Human rights lawyers and activists added their voice to his appeal on Wednesday.

“The acting prime minister’s promises of ‘political vendettas,’ ‘civic revenge’ and ‘staff purges’ made today and his use of offensive language are extremely concerning,” read the first statement released by Tatoyan.

“What makes such rhetoric really dangerous is that it heightens existing tensions and carries the risk of being transferred into real life,” it said.

Campaigning in Aragatsotn province earlier on Tuesday, Pashinyan pledged to crack down on heads of local communities and private entities who he claimed are forcing their subordinates to attend campaign rallies held by his political opponents.

“I’m not talking about physical violence. I’m talking about political and civil vendettas,” he stressed.

Tatoyan dismissed these assurances, saying that any vendetta is “associated with violence” and that staff purges inevitably involve mass violations of worker rights. Pashinyan’s remarks could also send “wrong signals” to law-enforcement agencies and other state bodies, he said.
“Exploiting the issue of the return of prisoners illegally held in Azerbaijan during the election campaign is unacceptable,” the ombudsman said in the follow-up statement.

He referred to bitter recriminations traded by Pashinyan and former President Serzh Sarkisian on the campaign trail.

Sarkisian provoked the war of words by condemning Pashinyan’s remark that the more than 100 Armenian prisoners of war and civilian captives would not mind spending “one or two more months” in Azerbaijani captivity for the sake of preventing “disproportionate” Armenian concessions to Baku. The ex-president, who leads a major opposition alliance, challenged Pashinyan to try to swap them for his son Ashot.

The prime minster was quick to express readiness to do that in fiery speeches that also contained harsh personal attacks on Sarkisian and another former president, Robert Kocharian. He reaffirmed that readiness during a campaign trip to Shirak province on Wednesday.

“I have instructed relevant state bodies to officially communicate to the Azerbaijani side our proposal to the effect that my son is prepared to go to Baku as a hostage provided that all of our prisoners are repatriated,” Pashinyan told supporters rallying in the village of Mets Mantash.

Speaking at a rally held in another village, Azatan, he insisted that the Armenian authorities have been “doing our utmost” to secure their release. “I have no doubts that it’s a matter of time,” he said.

More than 50 of the Armenian POWs are army reservists who were drafted from Shirak during the autumn war with Azerbaijan. Pashinyan briefly spoke with some of their relatives after the Azatan rally. The latter seemed dissatisfied with the conversation and refused to talk to reporters.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, many other relatives also urged all election contenders to avoid exploiting the issue during the parliamentary race. Zhanna Aleksanyan, a human rights activist, echoed their calls.

“He should not speak about his son in that context,” Aleksanyan said of Pashinyan. She at the same time faulted Sarkisian and other former government for claiming that the current authorities have done nothing to have the prisoners freed.

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