By Emil Danielyan
Human Rights Watch, a prominent international human rights organization, issued on Friday another damning indictment of Armenia’s Soviet-era system of “administrative arrests” which the authorities in Yerevan used extensively in their recent crackdown on the opposition.
The New York-based watchdog described as “political repression” the arrests of hundreds of opposition supporters during this year’s presidential race and demanded an end to the practice, also denounced by Armenia’s Constitutional Court and the Council of Europe.
The latter has repeatedly demanded that the Armenian government stop enforcing provisions of the Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses that enable local courts to sentence people to up to 15 days in prison without compelling evidence of wrongdoing. More than 200 supporters of opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian have been jailed under that code since the February 19 first round of the presidential election.
Their “arbitrary” detentions are documented by a 24-page “briefing paper” released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday. It urges the Armenian authorities to refrain from arresting and intimidating their political opponents in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
"The Armenian authorities use the outdated code on punishing public order misdemeanors as a tool of political repression," Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia division, said in a separate statement.
"The authorities appear determined to retain an administrative detention option for the forthcoming elections, and that's deeply troubling," she added.
Responding to the call, the spokesman for the Armenian Justice Ministry, Ara Saghatelian, said the government is now “working on bringing the Administrative Code into conformity with European standards.” But he indicated that the government will not stop applying its controversial clauses in the interim.
“If there are disruptions of public order, the state must take administrative measures,” he told RFE/RL.
Saghatelian and other Armenian officials have argued previously that Armenia is under no international obligation to amend the code. The Council of Europe, however, insists that changing the arrest legislation is part of the country’s membership commitments.
Significantly, this position was endorsed by the Armenian Constitutional Court which ruled on April 16 that the imprisonment of individuals attending unsanctioned opposition rallies ran counter to the European Convention on Human Rights which Armenia signed after joining the Council of Europe. However, the court’s opinion on the issue was angrily dismissed by President Robert Kocharian’s administration.
“Since the mid-1990s, Armenian authorities have used administrative detention as a tool of repression, locking up protesters and activists at times of political tension,” the HRW report says. “The 2003 presidential election and its aftermath mark the most sustained, extensive abuses in the last seven years.”
The report says the mass arrests “disrupted” Demirchian’s campaign. “They appeared aimed at stifling public criticism of the conduct of the vote-which was won by incumbent President Robert Kocharian, amid serious claims of election fraud,” it says.
The authorities claim that all the detainees “disrupted public order” and committed unspecified “hooligan acts” during the opposition demonstrations. HRW, however, insists that the protests were peaceful. It also accuses the authorities of violating the due process of law by routinely denying the detainees access to lawyers and trying them in closed sessions.
“Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to make reform of the system of administrative detention a part of its relationship with the government of Armenia,” the report says. “Human Rights Watch also urges the Armenian government to take serious measures to eradicate the abuse of administrative detention.”