By Shakeh Avoyan
Armenia has failed to democratize its political system and even regressed in some areas ever since being admitted into the Council of Europe five years ago, according to local non-governmental organizations dealing with political reform.
In an extensive report made public on Thursday, they accused the Armenian authorities of continuing to rig elections and failing to tackle police torture and other human rights abuses.
The 200-page document is the result of a more than year-long research of Armenian laws, political developments and human rights practices that was conducted by the Yerevan Press Club and several other civic groups critical of the government. Its release was timed to coincide with the firth anniversary of Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe, an event which many hoped will speed up its democratization.
“None of the elections held in the Republic of Armenia since its accession to the Council of Europe have been judged to be free and fair by observers, and the public has lingering doubts among about the credibility of their official results,” reads the report. It says the Armenian leadership lacks the political will to ensure that the next elections are more democratic.
“The situation is very sad because expectations that Armenia’s commitments to the Council of Europe will be fulfilled have failed to materialize,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group that co-authored the report.
“Since joining the Council of Europe we have regressed in some areas such as freedom of speech and assembly,” he told RFE/RL, referring to the closure in 2002 of Armenia’s sole national TV station not controlled by President Robert Kocharian. Efforts by the Council of Europe to get the Armenian authorities to reopen the A1+ channel proved fruitless.
Ishkhanian also cited widespread mistreatment of criminal suspects kept in pre-trial detention, echoing statements made by Western human rights watchdogs. “The practice has continued unabated and nobody is held accountable for torture,” he said.
According to the report, 80 percent of defendants in Armenia renounce their pre-trial guilty pleas in court, saying that they were extracted under duress. But the local courts rarely acquit them or at least agree to investigate their torture allegations. The report presents this fact as further proof of a lack of independent judiciary in Armenia.
The Council of Europe and other pan-European structures say the situation should change with the recent passage of amendments to the Armenian constitution that are aimed, among other things, at making local courts less dependent on the president of the republic. The NGO report insists, however, that the changes enacted in the November 27 constitutional referendum are not radical enough to strengthen court independence.
Vartan Poghosian, a constitutional lawyer and another author of the study, said the way the authorities handled the referendum left little hope for positive change. “In terms of democratization, I believe that November 27 was a very heavy blow to Armenian statehood,” he told reporters. “In this sense, I am very surprised by soft and weak evaluations made by the Council of Europe and other European structures.”
While strongly criticizing serious fraud that marred the referendum, European officials say the constitutional changes bode well for Armenia’s democratization. Some of them have gone so far as to say that the constitutional reform brought the country closer to meeting European standards for democracy, rule of law and human rights.
The Armenian government, for its part, says that it has already honored virtually all of its Council of Europe commitments assumed in January 2001.
(Photolur photo: Poghosian, right, speaking at the report's presentation.)