By Emil Danielyan
The United States has again criticized the Armenian authorities’ human rights record as “poor,” saying that they continue to tolerate police torture, harass political opponents and restrict citizens’ constitutional right to change their government.
“The government's human rights record remained poor, and serious problems remained,” the U.S. State Department said of Armenia in its annual report scrutinizing human rights practices around the world.
“There's a lot of concern, from our perspective, of rule-of-law issues in Armenia,” Jeff Krilla, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told RFE/RL. “There is still an opposition, in that we see having some sort of force to try and keep the checks and balances in the government in place,” he said. “But overall media freedom and rule-of-law issues are of concern to us.”
The report, released this week, said Armenians remain unable to “freely to change their government,” while their law-enforcement authorities still get away with making arbitrary arrests and ill-treating criminal suspects. It essentially mirrors the State Departments’ previous assessments of the situation in Armenia. Extraction of testimony under duress has been one of their main highlights. Local and international watchdogs consider the practice the most common form of human rights violation in the country.
“Witnesses continued to report numerous cases of police beating citizens during arrest and during interrogation while in detention,” read the latest U.S. report. “Human rights nongovernmental organizations reported similar allegations; however, most cases of police mistreatment went unreported because of fear of retribution.”
Citing the Armenian government, the State Department said three police officers were fired and 20 others fined for beating suspects over the past year. “Prosecutors also opened 11 criminal cases against some of the police officers involved; the disposition of those cases was unclear at the end of the year [2006,]” it said.
The department again pointed to the Armenian government’s failure to hold elections recognized as free and fair by the international community. “Although the law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, that right was restricted in practice due to repeated flaws in the conduct of elections,” said its report. It recalled the authorities’ conduct of the 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections and the constitutional referendum held in November 2005.
According to the report, the enacted amendments to Armenia’s constitution resulted in “some increase in judicial independence and for the first time gave citizens direct access to the Constitutional Court.” The report singled out a December 22 appeals court ruling that effectively cleared three Armenian army soldiers of murder charges, calling it a “significant assertion of judicial independence.”
The State Department also found other positive developments such as a toughening of penalties for human trafficking and government efforts to “modernize and reform police and security forces.” But it went on to accuse Yerevan of harassing some opposition parties, “partially limiting” freedom of speech and maintaining restrictions on religious freedom.
In particular, the department report noted that male members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect continue to be imprisoned in Armenia despite passage of legislation allowing them not to serve in the armed forces. “At year's end, according to Jehovah's Witnesses lawyers, 52 of their members were in prison, 49 of them serving sentences and three awaiting trial,” it said.
(State Department photo: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presents the report in Washington on Tuesday.)