By Ruzanna Stepanian
Conditions in most Armenian prisons remain harsh and in some cases “inhumane” despite having somewhat improved since Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe, civil society representatives that regularly inspect them said on Thursday.
Presenting its latest report, a monitoring team comprising representatives of a dozen non-governmental organizations and the Armenian Apostolic Church said the country’s four largest prisons do not meet international standards and must be relocated to new buildings. The detailed report, based on the team’s annual inspection of the Armenian penitentiary facilities also concludes that most inmates are poorly fed and not provided with adequate healthcare.
Officials from Armenian Justice Ministry department running the prisons disagreed with that assertion, insisting that the prison population has free access to doctors and medicine and does not suffer from malnutrition.
Members of the monitoring team painted a similarly bleak picture in their previous report released last year. It urged the Armenian authorities to do more to improve the plight of the convicts. Justice Ministry officials accepted much of the criticism at the time, but blamed the problem on a lack of funds.
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 July 2004 report, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), a Council of Europe watchdog agency, said that although the Armenian prison conditions have since improved they still fall short of European standards.
According to the Armenian prison monitors, mistreatment of prisoners is another serious problem. “While the police resort to violence to extract confessions from suspects [kept in pre-trial detention], in prisons violence is used as a punishment for disobedience and escape attempts,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, a human rights campaigner and member of the monitoring group. “Sometimes beatings are very brutal.”
The group’s latest report refers in particular to the alleged beating of five inmates of a maximum-security jail in the southern town of Goris where a riot broke out last April. Citing eyewitness accounts, the report says the riot was quashed by a special police unit sent from Yerevan. Security forces are also said to have also demonstratively burned the belongings of all prisoners’ in retaliation for the protest.
Also, recent reports in the Armenian press said that four men serving life sentences at Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison were tortured and held in inhuman conditions following their unsuccessful attempt to break free last July. The men reportedly tried to kill themselves after being caught by prison guards. The prison chief denied the reports.
“I’m not saying that such cases are numerous,” Ishkhanian told reporters. “But they do happen and seem to have been frequent of late.”
Vaghinak Kocharian, deputy head of the Justice Ministry’s prison department, admitted that prison guards “use force” against inmates, but said they do so only “in cases of emergency.” “We have legally defined sanctions against unruly convicts,” he said. “So have to use and will use force if necessary.”