By Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian police reported on Wednesday a 4.5 percent increase in the number of officially registered crimes committed during the first half of this year, blaming it on the country’s new, more lenient criminal code. They also admitted that the Armenian authorities’ crackdown on the opposition distracted the law-enforcement agencies from the fight against crime.
According to official statistics cited by the deputy chief of Armenia’s Police Service, General Ararat Mahtesian, a total of 5,351 criminal offenses were identified and registered from January through June. The police claim to have already solved 83 percent of them.
The figures show that “crimes against property” such as thefts and armed robberies continue to account for the largest share of the overall delinquency: 40.7 percent during the first half of 2004. They are now more frequent than in the past. By contrast, the number of murders and murder attempts is said to be down from 56 to 51.
Mahtesian said that the main reason for the rise in crime is the entry into force in August 2003 of the new criminal code which shortened most of the prison sentences set in Soviet times. The code also led to the earlier-than-expected release of more than 800 persons who had been sentenced under the previous law. It also enabled 1,200 other convicts to have their jail terms shortened.
“In effect, the majority of individuals who came out of jail as a result of the passage of the new criminal code have again committed crimes,” Mahtesian said.
Mahtesian also indicated that the authorities’ heavy-handed response to last spring’s opposition campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation, left the police with less time and fewer resources to prevent and punish crimes. He complained that police officers had to “maintain public order” at 136 public gatherings staged by the opposition between March and June.
“There have been such mass activities in which the entire police system seemed to be involved,” he said in an apparent reference to the brutal break-up on the night from April 12 to 13 of a peaceful opposition protest near Kocharian’s residence.
Scores of baton-wielding police backed by interior troops used water cannons and stun grenades to disperse the crowd of up to 3,000 protesters who camped on the city’s Marshal Baghramian Avenue. Dozens of the protesters were badly injured in the melee.
The crackdown also involved arrests of hundreds of opposition activists across the country and police ransacking of the Yerevan the offices of the main opposition parties. Local human rights groups say the law-enforcement agencies have effectively been given the functions of a political police monitoring and suppressing any anti-government activity.
A written statement by the Armenian police said that despite the rising crime Armenia remains one of the safest former Soviet republics. The statement said the per-capita crime rate of countries like Russia and Ukraine still by far exceeds that of Armenia.