By Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Emil Danielyan
Armenia's human rights record, marred by widespread ill-treatment of detainees and the continuing prosecution of conscientious objectors to compulsory military service, has again come under attack from Amnesty International. But in its annual report covering events of 2001, the respected London-based watchdog appears to have toned down its consistent criticism of the Armenian authorities' handling of these problems.
"There were persistent allegations that law enforcement officials subjected people to torture and ill-treatment to obtain confessions and coerce testimony," says the report released on Tuesday. "There were concerns that investigations by the authorities into such allegations were not adequate."
Last year's Amnesty report on Armenia, by contrast, plainly criticized the authorities for their failure to investigate all instances of police brutality "thoroughly and impartially."
While noting that Armenia continues to imprison male citizens refusing to perform compulsory military on religious grounds, the 2002 report welcomes as "good news" the release of at least 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in the course of 2001. Yerevan undertook to pass legislation allowing conscientious objectors to perform an alternative civil service when it was admitted into the Council of Europe in January 2001. A draft law on alternative service was unveiled earlier this year and has yet to be considered by the parliament.
Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty's acting director for Europe, told RFE/RL on Wednesday that membership of the Council has reflected positively on the human rights situation in Armenia. She said: "I think what we have seen is more forward movement, particularly in terms of working with the Council of Europe to look at some of the issues that they were concerned about and then trying to move forward with that. A number of issues have been identified of what needs to be improved, which is good."
But Duckworth also stressed that progress has not been fast enough "in some areas." "We are concerned that we are continuing to get allegations of human rights violations in Armenia regardless of its ongoing commitment to international standards," she said.
The Amnesty report says Armenia has still to meet most of its key Council of Europe obligations, including the formal abolition of the death penalty and the ratification of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Police torture is widespread in Armenia, with criminal suspects routinely mistreated in custody. Amnesty International and other Western rights group believe that it is the most common form of human rights abuses in the country and often accuse its government of turning a blind eye on them. The U.S. State Department likewise noted in a report last March that the authorities rarely investigate allegations of abuse by security services.
Amnesty International reiterated its concerns about continuing allegations that Nairi Hunanian and four other jailed gunmen who stormed the Armenian parliament in October 1997 were tortured during their pre-trial interrogations. Its report admits "widespread public and political support" for their execution, a prospect that has already raised the Council of Europe's concern.
Duckworth said Hunanian and his henchmen should be given a fair trial despite the seriousness of their crime. She also said they fit into Amnesty's definition of "political prisoners" which requires the existence of "some sort of political element" in a particular criminal case.
"Within our broad definition of a political prisoner we think that the October case does fall within that because there were political aspirations, if you like, behind the reasons why [the armed attack on the parliament] was carried out," she explained. "We are not saying that a political motivation for a clearly criminal act is any excuse for that sort of act. But we do call for these people do get a fair trial."
The Armenian parliament is expected to vote soon for the de-jure removal of the death penalty from the Criminal Code and its replacement by life imprisonment. But lawmakers, who were held hostage by the Hunanian gang for 18 hours, will likely leave a legal loophole allowing courts to hand down a death sentence against the perpetrators of the bloodbath.
The Council of Europe has warned that Yerevan will be suspended from the Strasbourg-based organization if it executes them. Amnesty International is also strongly opposed to capital punishment.