By Ruzanna Stepanian
The chief of Armenia’s largest prison denied on Wednesday allegations that four of its inmates have been tortured and held in inhuman conditions since their unsuccessful attempt to break free more than a week ago.
The prisoners, three of them in their 20s, are serving life sentences at the Nubarashen jail on the southern outskirts of Yerevan and tried to break out of it on the night from July 23-24. They went on a week-long hunger strike after being allegedly beaten up by prison guards and placed under a harsh prison regime.
A group of officials from Armenia’s office of the human rights ombudsman visited the men and were apparently shocked by their plight. One of the officials, Grigor Grigorian, said they are denied the “minimum” prison amenities such as medical aid, personal hygiene and regular walks. “All I saw were their bunk beds,” he told RFE/RL. “They don’t even have glasses to drink water from.”
The prison chief, Aram Sargsian, admitted that the prisoners are being kept in “punitive conditions” in retaliation for their escape attempt, but denied that those are inhuman. “We have given them blankets and bed sheets, considering the fact that they have been on hunger strike for days and may be exhausted,” he claimed. “We have only removed redundant things such TVs and radios from their cells.”
“No additional methods are being used to cause them psychological and physical pain,” Sargsian added.
The Yerevan newspaper “168 Zham” cited on Tuesday au unidentified Nubarashen official as saying that the inmates tried to kill themselves after being subjected to torture. Officials from the ombudsman’s office did not confirm the allegation.
It is not clear if the four men were among nearly 50 Armenian lifers that went on collective hunger strike in February 2004 to demand that they be either retried or given a chance to be set free earlier than is allowed by Armenia’s new criminal code. The code makes them eligible for parole only after they spend 20 years in prison. The maximum jail term under the previous, Soviet-era law was 15 years.
Prisons conditions in Armenia are believed to have improved since the local penitentiary system was transferred from police to Justice Ministry jurisdiction in 2002. Still, they were described as “unsatisfactory” by representatives of a dozen non-governmental organizations in a June 2005 report based on their yearlong inspection of prisons across the country. The report said most of them remain overcrowded and unsanitary.