Artur Sakunts, a prominent human rights campaigner heading the monitoring team, singled out prison overcrowding as the most serious problem facing the country’s 5,100-strong prison population, which also includes those kept in pre-trial detention.
“Our objective is to have humane conditions in the correctional system, where a part of our citizens is being kept,” he said. “Conditions that do not infringe on their dignity.”
“The trend in the last three years has been negative. The number of unsolved problems has increased,” Sakunts told a news conference.
Sakunts’s team comprises representatives of more than a dozen non-governmental organizations involved in human and civil rights advocacy. The Armenian government allows them to visit prisons and inspect conditions there on a regular basis. The monitoring group officially publishes its findings in annual reports.
“During our visits we have repeatedly seen 12, 18 or even 20 individuals kept in prison cells designed for 8 persons,” Sakunts said. “When I ask inmates how they sleep they say, ‘We take turns.’”
“I would urge those inmates to take legal action against the Republic of Armenia because of the inhuman conditions in which they are kept,” added the campaigner highly critical of the Armenian authorities’ human rights record.
Armenia - Human rights activist Artur Sakunts (L) and Arsen Babayan, spokesman for a Justice Ministry division running Armenian prisons, meet journalists, 2June2011.
Arsen Babayan, the spokesman for a Justice Ministry department running the Armenian prisons and detention centers, dismissed these claims, saying that the problem of overcrowding is “very often exaggerated.” He insisted that every prisoner in Armenia has their own bed and does not have to share it with cellmates.
According to Babayan, the total number of prisoners and detainees exceeds the country’s nominal prison capacity by roughly 800. “Just because a certain [maximum] number is set doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to keep more people than that in penitentiary institutions,” he told journalists. “Let’s also take into account prison remodeling done there and the creation of new cells.”
The official added that overcrowding will be significantly alleviated with the early release of some 400 prisoners which is currently underway in accordance with a general amnesty declared by the authorities late last month.