By Karine Kalantarian
Armenia’s top official in charge of human rights protection criticized the government on Friday for its intention to curtail her powers which local watchdogs believe are already insufficient for combating widespread rights abuses.
Ombudsman Larisa Alaverdian also complained that President Robert Kocharian did not allow her to voice her disagreement with the government at Thursday’s cabinet meeting chaired by the head of state.
Kocharian and his ministers decided to ask parliament to amend Armenia’s law on the human rights defender in a way that would prevent the ombudsman from “interfering” in court cases. More specifically, Armenian judges would no longer have to provide judicial documents requested by the ombudsman’s office.
According to Alaverdian, the amendment was suggested by Justice Minister David Harutiunian who is believed to exert considerable influence over the courts. “Unfortunately, the justice minister is trying hard to protect judges against the ombudsman, instead of helping us protect human rights,” she told RFE/RL.
The Armenian judges, who are appointed and can be dismissed by the president, are widely perceived to be dependent on the executive and rarely hand down rulings contradicting the prosecutors’ wishes. The latter are in turn often accused of using torture to extract desired testimony and present it to the courts.
Alaverdian said she was interrupted by Kocharian when she attempted to speak out against the proposed amendment. “When I tried to provide clarifications, the president said that the defender has the right to ask questions but not to hinder the meeting,” she said. “In fact, the human rights defender has the legal right to deliver speeches [during cabinet meetings] in cases pertaining to human rights protection.”
The ombudsman suggested that Kocharian was apparently unaware of this legal provision.
Also opposing the proposed change was Avetik Ishkhanian, chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. Ishkhanian pointed out that Alaverdian already lacks the power to prevent human rights violations in the country. “It would narrow the ombudsman’s sphere of activities and make the institution of human rights defender even more of a formality,” he said.
Armenia introduced the post of ombudsman last year under pressure from the Council of Europe which cited the positive experience of many European nations. However, the move met with widespread skepticism, with critics arguing that the ombudsman is appointed by Kocharian and therefore unlikely to be independent.