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The Armenian government plans to enact a new Code of Criminal Procedure which it says would strengthen due process in the country by limiting sweeping powers currently enjoyed by law-enforcement bodies.

The code was drafted by the Ministry of Justice and approved by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s cabinet at a recent session. Armenia’s parliament is due to debate it this fall.

Deputy Justice Minister Ruben Melikian said on Monday that more than two-thirds of the code’s 564 articles are new provisions that do not exist in current Armenian legislation regulating criminal investigations and trials. He said they stipulate procedures and practices widely applied in the West and seek to address rulings handed down by the European Court of Human against the Armenian government.

“We have tried to take the European Court’s experience into account as comprehensively as possible in order to stop blaming legislative issues for losing cases [in Strasbourg,]” Melikian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).

Ara Ghazarian, a legal expert, praised the proposed legislation, saying that it contains important safeguards against human rights abuses by the police and other security agencies. In particular, Ghazarian said, the police would have to substantiate their decisions to summon individuals for questioning. “Under the new code, taking a person to a police station is tantamount to accusing him,” he said.

In Ghazarian’s words, the government also plans to introduce more alternatives to pre-trial detention of criminal suspects, notably house arrest, and widen possibilities of their release on bail. “Everything is being done to reduce the number of pre-trial arrests,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).

Pre-trial arrest has long been the norm in Armenia, with local courts routinely refusing to free accused individuals pending trial. Human rights groups and defense lawyers say this makes it easier for law-enforcement officers to exert press on suspects and extract confessions from them.

The new Code of Criminal Procedure will take effect in 2014 if it is approved by the National Assembly. Its introduction appears to stem from a four-year plan of reforming Armenia’s judicial and law-enforcement systems that was drawn up by the Justice Ministry and approved by President Serzh Sarkisian in June. Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian declared late last month that Armenians will stop complaining about a lack of justice in their country as a result of those reforms.
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