By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
The Armenian government declined on Thursday to comment on fresh U.S. criticism of its human rights record which was again described as “poor” in the State Department’s annual report made public the previous day.
The report scrutinizing human rights practices around the world says the authorities in Yerevan continued to tolerate widespread police brutality and impunity, breach Armenians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to change government and “partially limit” press freedom in the course of last year. “Although there were some improvements in some areas, the government's human rights record remained poor and serious problems remained,” it concludes.
Mistreatment of criminal suspects in custody has traditionally been the main highlight of international criticisms of human rights protection in Armenia, and the latest State Department report is no exception to this rule. “Witnesses continued to report numerous cases of police beating citizens during arrest and interrogation while in detention,” it says. “Most cases of police brutality went unreported because of fear of retribution.”
The report notes that torture allegations are still rarely investigated by Armenian courts which usually grant police requests for arrest warrants and remain “subject to political pressure from the executive and legislative branches.” “As a result, impunity was a serious problem. NGOs and international human rights groups reported detainee abuse was widespread, and there were no efforts underway to modernize or reform police or security forces,” says the report.
The State Department also mentioned “abridged rights of citizens to change their government,” pointing to the Armenian authorities’ handling of the November 27 constitutional referendum that was criticized as deeply flawed by European observers and denounced as fraudulent by the opposition. Still, it described the resulting amendments to Armenia’s constitution as a “step toward establishing a system of democratic institutions.”
The report’s media section cites, among other problems, the effective disruption of the RFE/RL Armenian service’s main programs broadcast on November 27 and the next two days. “State-run Armenian Public Radio claimed in a statement that the disruptions were due to technical problems, but some observers alleged the disruptions were politically motivated. RFE/RL did not lodge an official complaint,” it says.
Official representatives of the Armenian government refrained from commenting on the report on Thursday, saying that they need time to look into its findings. President Robert Kocharian reacted negatively to a similarly critical report issued by Human Rights Watch last January. A Kocharian spokesman said at the time that the New York-based watchdog’s claims that police torture remains widespread in Armenia “have nothing to do with reality.”
Armenia’s recently appointed human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, said he will take the U.S. criticism seriously but not necessarily at face value. “Such documents should serve, to a certain degree, as a guideline for us,” he told RFE/RL.
“Armenia is a typical post-Soviet country, and it is no secret that serious work needs to be done in terms of human rights protection,” added Harutiunian. “We should try to achieve a breakthrough on this issue.”
Vazgen Manukian, a prominent opposition politician, was skeptical about the State Department report’s positive impact on the situation with human rights, saying that the United States and other Western nations have been too soft on the Armenian leadership. “I would look at the matter from a different angle: Why would human rights be protected in Armenia? Their protection is proportional to external pressure on us,” Manukian told RFE/RL.
“Besides, when there is no judicial system, no electoral system, no free media, it is meaningless to speak of human rights,” he said.
(U.S. State Department photo: Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice presenting the report on Wednesday.)