June 22, 2009 / 11:09 AM / 10 years ago

Armenia frees opposition officials under amnesty

YEREVAN, June 22 (Reuters) - A former Armenian foreign minister and three other senior opposition figures were freed on Monday under an amnesty for those charged over deadly clashes in March 2008 after a disputed election.

The former Soviet republic passed an amnesty bill on Friday, after accusations by European rights bodies of politically motivated arrests. Eight opposition protesters and two police officers died in the clashes.

In separate trials, former foreign minister Alexander Arzumanyan and three others were found guilty on Friday of organising mass disorder, arson and pogroms, and sentenced to five years in jail.

But they walked free under the terms of the amnesty. A fifth man did not qualify for the amnesty and was sentenced to eight years in jail.

Arzumanyan was campaign chief for opposition presidential challenger Levon Ter-Petrosyan, whose supporters took to the streets in March last year to dispute the results of a presidential election won by current head of state Serzh Sarksyan.

"From tomorrow I renew my fight," said one of the freed men, Suren Sirunyan. "We are against the amnesty, in so much as we did not commit any crime for which they have forgiven us," local media quoted him as saying.

Some 100 people were arrested during a state of emergency after the violence, and more than 50 received jail terms.

Rights groups expressed concern, and the Council of Europe criticised the arrest and imprisonment of people for "political reasons". The Council is expected to debate the issue at a sitting this week.

Arzumanyan and his co-accused were originally accused of "usurpation of state power" but the charge was dropped in April. (Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Richard Williams)

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