By Hrach Melkumian
President Robert Kocharian on Friday formally commuted the death sentences passed in Armenia since independence to life imprisonment as the first group of prisoners was set free before completing their jail terms in accordance with the new Criminal Code.
The presidential decree concerns all of Armenia’s 42 individuals who have spent years on death row amid an unofficial post-Soviet moratorium on executions. It was timed to coincide with entry into force of the code which effectively abolishes the death penalty.
Some of those individuals may have fallen under a special legal clause which allows capital punishment in exceptional cases such as terrorism and pedophilia. The clause is primarily directed at the perpetrators of the October 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament. It has been denounced by the Council of Europe and is widely expected to be removed from the books this fall.
The code envisages softer punishments for a wide array of other crimes. Its retroactive force will result in the earlier-than-expected release of the majority of some 3,600 prison inmates across Armenia. The first 200 prisoners walked free on Friday and a thousand others will be set free in the next three months. Their amnesty applications are already considered by the local courts.
According to Samvel Hovannisian, the head of a Justice Ministry department which runs the nation’s prisons, one in three pardoned individuals will likely commit more crimes and again face imprisonment. “Our experience has been that 30 percent of those released under an amnesty return to prison,” he said. “And they return pretty soon.”