By Emil Danielyan
Armenia's human rights record remains "poor" despite some improvements registered last year, according to an annual report by the U.S. State Department released on Monday.
The report, which examines human rights practices around the world, criticizes the Armenian authorities for "restricting" citizens' right to change their government peacefully and tolerating their widespread mistreatment in custody. It also deplores the lack of effective checks and balances against the powerful executive branch.
"The [Armenian] Government's human rights record remained poor; however, there were improvements in a few areas," the report concludes. "There were no confirmed reports of political killings by the government or its agents; however, there were deaths in police custody and deaths in the military as a result of mistreatment. Members of the security forces routinely beat detainees during arrest and interrogation."
The State Department noted that the authorities rarely investigate allegations of abuse by security services. It mentioned the violent death last September of an Armenian man from Georgia widely blamed on President Robert Kocharian's bodyguards.
Only one of them was tried and given a one-year suspended jail sentence last month. Friends and relatives of the victim, Poghos Poghosian, have condemned the official inquiry into the fatal incident, alleging a high-level cover-up.
The report says there were 27 deaths in Armenian custody last year, adding that most cases of police brutality go unreported because its victims fear "police retribution."
Police brutality has also been singled out by respected international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that regard it as the most common form of human rights violations in Armenia.
The State Department report again holds the Armenian authorities responsible for "serious flaws" that marred most elections held in Armenia since independence. It criticizes Armenia's existing constitutional order, saying that sweeping powers vested in the office of president are "not balanced by the legislature or an independent judiciary."
In a damning indictment of the judicial system reformed by the 1995 constitution, the report says: "The system, inherited from the Soviet system, views the court largely as a rubber stamp for the prosecutor and not as a defender of citizens' rights."
The report further says that there are "some restrictions" on press freedom and religious freedom in Armenia. It claims that most Armenian journalists continue to practice self-censorship when covering security agencies, but cites no concrete examples of that.
"The Government continued to deny registration to Jehovah's Witnesses and 13 members of Jehovah's Witnesses were in corrective labor facilities for refusing military service, while 4 more Jehovah's Witnesses were awaiting trial," the report says.