By Emil Danielyan
Amnesty International singled out the widespread ill-treatment of criminal suspects by law-enforcement officers and hazing of army conscripts in the Armenia section of its annual report into global human rights abuses in 2002 released Wednesday.
The London-based watchdog also criticized the Armenian authorities for their failure to completely abolish the death penalty and continuing prosecution of young men refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds.
“Reports indicated that ill-treatment by law-enforcement agencies remained commonplace,” the report says. “Military conscripts continued to be treated brutally by superior officers or with their complicity. It was alleged that a number of investigations into cases of torture or ill-treatment were inadequate.”
Amnesty, however, stopped short of explicitly accusing the authorities of covering up such abuses. In its 2001 report, for example, the widely respected organization deplored their failure to investigate all instances of police brutality "thoroughly and impartially."
Amnesty listed instead several reported examples of what is widely believed to be the most common form of human rights violation in Armenia. It noted in particular the July 2002 beating in police custody of a parliament deputy and a mild punishment given to a bodyguard of President Robert Kocharian who was convicted of beating to death a man in a Yerevan café in September 2001.
Amnesty also referred to the violent death in February of a 22-year-old serviceman beaten up by fellow soldiers at a military unit near the northern city of Vanadzor. Artiom Sargsian reportedly received no medial assistance and died after spending 36 hours in agonizing pain. Fifteen people, including Sargsian’s two alleged assailants, were charged in connection with his death and went on trial last December.
Police torture is widespread in Armenia where criminal suspects are routinely mistreated in custody. Local and international human rights often accuse its government of turning a blind eye on the practice.
Amnesty’s opinion on the issue was endorsed on Wednesday by Avetik Ishkhanian, chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee. “Nothing changed there in the course of last year, and the law-enforcement bodies continue to extract testimony with the same methods,” he told RFE/RL.
According to Ishkhanian, there have been fewer rights abuses in prisons and detention centers since their transfer under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Justice Ministry. But he cautioned that torture mainly takes place in police custody, during the initial interrogation of suspects.
On the whole, Ishkhanian said, the situation with human rights worsened in Armenia last year largely due to the closure of Armenia’s main independent television. “There was a big setback in the area of press freedom,” he said.
Armenia’s human rights record abroad appears to have deteriorated further as a result of mass arrests and imprisonment of opposition supporters during the recent presidential elections. The crackdown was denounced by Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe and other international organizations. The Amnesty International report does not cover events of this year.
Amnesty, which is strongly opposed to the death penalty, further pointed to Armenia’s failure to sign up to Protocol No. 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights which completely abolishes the punishment in peacetime. A new criminal code approved last month by Armenia’s outgoing parliament allows for the execution of five gunmen that seized it in October 1999.
The report also criticizes the authorities in Yerevan for continuing to jail male members of Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group for their conscientious objection to compulsory military service. Sixteen of them were sentenced to between one and three years in prison in 2002.