Twenty-nine men serving life sentences at Armenia’s largest prison went on hunger strike on Monday to demand that the authorities review their cases and legally increase their chances of regaining freedom.
Many of the inmates of the Nubarashen prison just outside Yerevan have already spent over 20 years behind bars. They had originally received death sentences that were commuted to life imprisonment after Armenia joined the Council of Europe in 2001.
Some of the life prisoners already went on hunger strike a decade ago after the then Armenian government enacted a new criminal code that abolished capital punishment. They protested against a clause that made them eligible for parole only after 20 years in prison. They argued that that the maximum jail term under the previous Soviet-era legislation was only 15 years.
Many of the lifers involved in the latest protest also claim that they were not convicted in fair trials and want law-enforcement and judicial authorities to review their cases.
The Nubarashen inmates communicated their demands to Justice Minister Hovannes Manukian in a joint letter sent more than a month ago. Manukian has not replied to them yet.
“The main reason for the hunger strike is the absence of an answer from the Justice Ministry,” said Yeranuhi Tumanian, an aide to Armenia’s human rights ombudsman Karen Andreasian who visited the prisoners immediately after the start of the hunger strike.
Dozens of relatives of the protesting lifers were quick to rally outside the ministry building in Yerevan and add their voices to the demands. “My son has already spent 20 years in jail,” said one woman. “Let them find some solution.”
Deputy Justice Suren Krmoyan met some of the protesters and assured them that Manukian did not ignore the demands issued by their loved ones. He said the minister has instructed his subordinates to thoroughly examine the matter.
The Justice Ministry is still looking into the prisoners’ demands and will respond shortly, Krmoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “If legislative solutions are deemed necessary we will clearly state what we are going to do,” he added.
Krmoyan also said that officials from a ministry department running Armenia’s prisons are now negotiating with the prisoners refusing food in an effort to end the protest.
According to Tumanian, the ombudsman’s office has already studied more than 100 criminal cases that resulted in life sentences. “We have found around 20 contentious cases,” she said.