By Shakeh Avoyan
Larisa Alaverdian on Monday formally took over as Armenia’s first ombudsman on human rights, saying that she will concentrate on child protection and prison conditions in the first instance.
Alaverdian was appointed by President Robert Kocharian on February 19 in accordance with a new law passed at the insistence of the Council of Europe. She is tasked with identifying and preventing human rights abuses.
The official began her first day without an office and staff. The government has still not provided office space for the new institution. Its organizational structure is also unclear.
Critics say Alaverdian unlikely to challenge the government because of being handpicked by Kocharian and having no prior record of rights advocacy.
But in her first interview with RFE/RL in the new capacity, Alaverdian said the fact that she was single-handedly chosen by Kocharian will not affect her work. She said that apart from dealing with citizens’ complaints she and her staff will suggest legislative changes and other “preventive measures” to improve the country’s human rights record which the U.S. State Department described as “poor” last week.
“The biggest complication is that you have to establish a new institution about which most people have no idea,” she said.
Alaverdian added that her first steps will be aimed at improving the plight of children living in orphanages or extremely poor families. She also singled out conditions in Armenian prisons and detention centers which remain poor despite recent years’ reforms of the country’s penitentiary system.
But Alaverdian made no mention of what domestic and international watchdogs say is the most endemic form of human rights abuse in Armenia: torture and other forms of mistreatment in police custody. She instead pledged to take action against widespread hazing of young conscripts in the military.
Alaverdian admitted that Armenia’s courts lack the independence to punish and redress such violations. “We do not yet have courts that are trusted by the population,” she said.