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By Karine Kalantarian
Conditions in Armenia’s prisons remain “unsatisfactory” despite having improved since their transfer under the Justice Ministry’s control three years ago, according to civil society activists that have extensively inspected them.

A permanent monitoring group of representatives of a dozen non-governmental organizations and the Armenian Apostolic Church urged the authorities to do more to improve the plight of convicts across the country. A report released by them says most Armenian prisons remain overcrowded and insanitary and are in need of urgent repairs. It says prison cells are poorly lit and the quality of food given to their inmates still leaves much to be desired.

The report, based on the findings of the team’s year-long inspections, contains a long list of relevant recommendations to the Justice Ministry. Those also include proposals to allow prisoners to have TV sets and access to other forms of entertainment such as cinema and sports.

A small detention facility in the northern city of Vanadzor was singled out as Armenia’s worst jail. The NGO monitors said prisoners there are kept in conditions “reminiscent of the dark Inquisition era.”

Samvel Hovannisian, head of a Justice Ministry departments running the prison, accepted much of the criticism but said the cash-strapped government lacks the money to drastically improve the prison conditions. He also claimed that many of the inmates were not in a much better situation before committing crimes and finding themselves in jail.

“It would be great if the prisoners lived in conditions existing abroad,” Hovannisian said. “But let us think about this. What were an inmate’s conditions at home? Did he have all the amenities at home?”

Armenia’s penitentiary system was transferred from the police to the Justice Ministry jurisdiction in 2002 under pressure from the Council of Europe. The measure was followed by the passage of a new, more lenient Armenian Criminal Code that led to the early release of most of the country’s 3,600-strong prison population.

In a report issued last July, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), a Council of Europe watchdog, said that although the prison conditions have since improved they still fall short of European standards. The CPT also complained about overcrowding and expressed concern at the high incidence of tuberculosis among Armenian prisoners.
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