By Astghik Bedevian and Anna Saghabalian
The government suspended the work of Armenia’s Office of Human Rights Defender and closed down its Yerevan premises on Friday pending the appointment of a new ombudsperson by parliament.
The unexpected move deepened controversy caused by its handling of the state body that was supposed to bring Armenia closer to meeting European standards for democracy and rule of law. It also appeared to contradict a January 4 decision by President Robert Kocharian to appoint an ad hoc commission tasked with temporarily managing the ombudsperson’s staff.
The presidential decree was signed the day before Larisa Alaverdian, the first ombudsperson and an increasingly vocal government critic, was relieved of her duties in accordance with Armenia’s newly amended constitution. One of the amendments mandates the human rights defender’s election by the National Assembly. The official was appointed by the president of the republic until now.
The government decided to suspend the entire human rights body late Thursday following Alaverdian’s repeated claims that Kocharian’s decree is illegal and should be overturned by the Constitutional Court. A government statement claimed that the Office of Ombudsperson has been “paralyzed” and no person or commission has the legal right to manage its staff in the absence of an ombudsperson.
Incidentally, Alaverdian has made similar arguments to demand that she be allowed to continue to run the agency in the interim. Its 45 employees were gathered by the caretaker commission and ordered to leave their offices and stay at home until further notice. They were visibly upset by the news.
“Are you worried about money? We will pay your salaries, don’t worry,” one of the three members of the commission, Arushan Hakobian, told the staff.
Asked by RFE/RL why the commission was formed by Kocharian in the first place, Hakobian said, “To create this situation.” He did not elaborate.
The parliament is expected to elect the new ombudsperson shortly after beginning a new semi-annual session next month. Leaders of its pro-Kocharian majority are already discussing possible candidates for the job. News reports suggest that they will likely elect Armen Harutiunian, a legal adviser Kocharian and one of the authors of the enacted constitutional amendments.
Alaverdian, meanwhile, continued to denounce the authorities’ handling of the situation on Friday. “We can’t find a better example of how human rights are violated in Armenia,” she said, referring to Kocharian’s January 4 decree.
Alaverdian also said she will press ahead with the publication of her second report on the situation with human rights in Armenia. The first such report released in April was highly critical of the authorities’ human rights record.
The Kocharian administration created the Office of Human Rights Defender under pressure from the Council of Europe which sees it as an important mechanism for redressing wrongs reported by Armenian citizens.
“Let’s face it, the Council of Europe is responsible for the creation of such a body. The Armenian authorities never needed it,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group.
“Ms. Alaverdian, who comes from the NGO sector, has acted like a real human rights ombudsperson and raised issues like torture and the forcible deprivation of real property belonging to people,” Ishkhanian told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan. “The post of human rights ombudsperson will be a mere façade from now on. The Armenian authorities will not repeat their mistake.”
(Photolur photo: Alaverdian and Ishkhanian pictured during the discussion.)