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Authorities in Armenia have continued to restrict citizens’ right to change their government, freedom of speech and judicial independence while ill-treatment of criminal suspects by law-enforcement bodies remains the norm, the U.S. State Department said on Thursday.

In its annual reports on human rights practices around the world presented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the department also noted the release in May-June 2011 of the last Armenian opposition members remaining in prison on controversial charges stemming from the 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan.

They were set free shortly after the Armenian opposition regained access to a key square in the capital that has traditionally been the main venue for anti-government protests in the country.

“The most significant human rights problems [in 2011] were limitations on citizens’ right to change their government, freedom of speech and press, and the independence of the judiciary,” reads the extensive report on Armenia.

“Courts remained subject to political pressure from the executive branch, and judges operated in a judicial culture that expected courts to find the accused guilty in almost every case,” it says, adding that only about 2 percent of individuals charged with various crimes were acquitted by Armenian courts last year. The acquittal rate stood at 0.9 percent in 2010.

The lack of judicial independence has long been linked with a widespread torture of detainees reported by local and international human rights groups.

“While the law prohibits such practices, members of the security forces continued to employ them regularly,” says the U.S. report. “Witnesses reported that police beat citizens during arrest and interrogation.”

According to the State Department, Armenian law-enforcement bodies investigated last year 35 complaints of police brutality and in about half of those cases police officers involved were subjected to disciplinary action. None of them was apparently prosecuted or fired.

“Authorities continued to arrest and detain criminal suspects without reasonable suspicion and to detain individuals arbitrarily due to their opposition political affiliations or political activities,” says the report.

The State Department also highlighted the authorities’ continuing strong influence on the news coverage of Armenian TV and radio stations. “Most stations were owned by politicians in the ruling party or politically connected businessmen and presented one-sided views of events,” it said.

Its report also points to an upsurge in libel lawsuits filed against media outlets over the course of 2011. “The government decriminalized libel and defamation but established high new civil fines that encouraged journalists and media outlets to practice self-censorship,” it says.
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