By Shakeh Avoyan
Human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdian launched on Tuesday another blistering attack on Armenia’s main security agency, saying it has begun harassing individuals that lodged complaints against government officials.
Alaverdian charged that the National Security Service’s handling of a bribery probe involving one of her employees is part of a government “campaign” aimed at discrediting the nascent institution of ombudsman.
The employee, Serob Antinian, was arrested by NSS operatives last Friday after being allegedly caught red-handed accepting a $300 bribe from the owner of a restaurant in downtown Yerevan. The Armenian successor to the Soviet-era KGB says Antinian was paid the bribe in return for a pledge to ignore a complaint against the restaurant owner that had been lodged with the ombudsman’s office by residents of nearby buildings.
NSS investigators broke into the Human Rights Defender’s Office and confiscated its main computer without informing Alaverdian just hours after the arrest. Alaverdian says the computer contained information about individuals alleging rights abuses. Under Armenian law that information can not be given to any government agency without plaintiffs’ consent.
According to Alaverdian, NSS agents visited on Tuesday a Yerevan-based law firm that helped two unidentified persons file appeals to the ombudsman’s office. “My worst fears have materialized today,” she told a news conference. “Despite assurances given by the National Security Service, information was extracted from our computer processor and is already used as a form of pressure on the law firm and possibly the two individuals that appealed to me.”
The NSS did not immediately comment on the accusations. It is therefore not clear why its investigators would need information about human rights plaintiffs.
Alaverdian claimed that she tried to contact President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian but neither men agreed to speak with her even by phone.
Alaverdian was appointed to the post by Kocharian last year following the passage of an Armenian law on the ombudsman that was demanded by the Council of Europe. The appointment caused widespread skepticism among many local human rights activists who argued that she is not independent and will avoid challenging the Armenian authorities.
However, Alaverdian’s high-profile activities quickly put her at loggerheads with the government which secured in early May a Constitutional Court ruling stripping the ombudsman of her right to have access to any court document. The ruling followed the publication of the defender’s first annual report in which she criticized last year’s government crackdown on the Armenian opposition.