By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The 42 Armenians whose death sentences were commuted by President Robert Kocharian on August 1 have voiced their dissatisfaction with the move, saying that they do not want to spend the rest of their lives in jail and must be considered for early release.
In a joint letter, they have requested a meeting with the leadership of parliament to ask it to amend Armenia’s new criminal code which abolishes the death penalty. They believe that the code must not set life imprisonment as the only alternative to capital punishment.
Some of the inmates of the high-security Nubarashen prison in Yerevan were able to speak to an RFE/RL correspondent in their cells on Thursday.
“We don’t know whether we now have the right appeal to any body,” said Armen Ter-Sahakian, a former police officer convicted in 2000 of leading a death squad allegedly formed in the early 1990s by then Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian.
Ter-Sahakian claimed that he would prefer death to a life in prison. “I don’t want to agonize in prison for the rest of life,” he said. “It’s a slow death. I prefer a quick one.”
Alik Grigorian, a member of Ter-Sahakian’s allegedly murderous gang also sentenced to death, cited the key argument of fellow prisoner when he said that the lengthiest jail term envisaged by Armenia’s previous, Soviet-era criminal code was only 15 years. The new code, which is otherwise less strict, stipulates that convicts like Grigorian must spend at least 20 years in detention before they can appeal for a pardon.
“They hoped their cases will be reconsidered by courts after the abolition of the death penalty,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. “Many of them view life imprisonment as a softer punishment.”
Six of the 42 prisoners have never asked the authorities to commute their death sentences as they believe that they were not tried and punished fairly. Among them is Armenak Mnjoyan, an alleged member of the so-called Dro terror group which Armenia’s former leadership claimed had carried out political killings in the early 1990s at the orders of the then opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Mnjoyan was sentenced in 1997 together with several other members of Dashnaktsutyun, now a governing party.
Some of the prisoners say they are not guilty at all. One of them, Artur Mkrtchian, was convicted in 1997 of murdering five soldiers while he served in the Armenian army, a charge he has never pleaded guilty to. Mkrtchian, who has had three hunger strikes since then, insisted on Thursday that the verdict was “illegal.” He said he wants to be re-tried and to prove his innocence.
The Helsinki Committee’s Ishkhanian backs the idea of retrials, saying that at least some of the convicts could, as a result, be set free during their lifetime. But he said Kocharian’s decree, hailed by the Council of Europe, ruled out the possibility of their cases again being heard by courts. With the new code entering into force on August 1, Ishkhanian argued, they would not have been executed without the presidential decree.
But the presidential press secretary, Ashot Kocharian, defended the move, saying that it stemmed from the new code and Armenia’s obligations to the Council of Europe.
Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry, which runs Armenia’s penitentiary system, is in no mood to suggest any legal amendments. All it will do now, a spokesman said on Friday, is to make sure that the prisoners’ letter reaches the parliament.