By Emil Danielyan
A senior U.S. diplomat on Wednesday heaped praise on Armenia’s leading human rights defenders, saying that the United States believes their activities are “critical” for the country’s democratic future.
Anthony Godfrey, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan, voiced Washington’s strong backing for human rights advocacy at a special lunch with the state Ombudsman Armen Harutiunian and three independent campaigners.
"In Armenia, the United States stands in solidarity with you -- the country's brave men and women who are doing such essential work as supporting a free press, fighting against trafficking in persons, advocating for freedom of religion, and supporting women's rights,” Godfrey told them, according to the U.S. embassy.
“We thank you for your efforts to further Armenia's democratic reforms, and for your dedication to fighting for those people who often don't have a voice,” he said.
The U.S. State Department has described the Armenian authorities’ human rights record as “poor” in its annual reports released in recent years.
A statement by the U.S. embassy said the lunch meeting, apparently the first of its kind, was dedicated to International Human Rights Day that was marked around the world on December 10. Two of its participants, Avetik Ishkhanian and Mikael Danielian, are outspoken critics of the Armenian government that have long accused it of condoning police torture, violations of due process and other human rights abuses.
Ishkhanian, who leads the Armenian Helsinki Committee, said the U.S. and the West in general have done “more than enough” to highlight these problems and press the authorities in Yerevan to tackle them. “The reasons why the situation with human rights in Armenia is disastrous are purely domestic,” he told RFE/RL. “We have only ourselves to blame for that.”
But Danielian disagreed, saying that Western powers “could and should have done more” to bring Yerevan to task. “I expect tougher action from them,” said the chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Assembly.
Interestingly, the meeting at the U.S. mission in Armenia coincided with the professional holiday of the employees of the National Security Service (NSS), the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB. It marks the establishment on December 20, 1917 of the VChK, Bolshevik Russia’s infamous secret police which historians blame for the deaths of millions of people. The agency changed several names before becoming the KGB in 1954.
President Robert Kocharian, who reinstated the Soviet-era holiday after coming to power in 1998, used the occasion to award medals to the entire leadership of the NSS. Among the 17 decorated officers were the agency’s director, Gorik Hakobian, and the head of a hitherto unknown NSS directorate tasked with protecting “constitutional order” and combating terrorism. Kocharian’s office said they were decorated for their “considerable contribution” to Armenia’s national security.
Ishkhanian scoffed at the official explanation, saying that the ex-KGB’s main function is to help the Kocharian administration stifle dissent and hold on to power. “This ceremony only testified to the deplorable state of human rights protection in Armenia,” he charged.
In a rare newspaper interview given two years ago, Hakobian said his agency is learning and drawing inspiration from the “glorious” experience of its Soviet predecessor. He also described former KGB informers as “patriots” who honestly served their country.
(Photolur photo: Hakobian, right, and other top NSS officers pictured with Kocharian after receiving the awards.)