By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
Dozens of Armenian prisoners serving life sentences went on hunger strike on Wednesday to renew their demands for being retried or given a chance of regaining freedom earlier than is allowed by the country’s new criminal code.
One of the inmates informed RFE/RL about the protest in a phone call from Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison where most of the 51 individuals jailed for life are being kept.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry, which runs Armenia’s prisons, confirmed the information, adding that 45 of them are “refusing to accept food” after signing a joint appeal to the authorities. The official, Ara Saghatelian, said they are seeking a meeting with representatives of the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The hunger strike was declared by virtually all of the 42 convicts that had been sentenced to death by Armenian courts since 1990. The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by President Robert Kocharian last August in accordance with Armenia’s new criminal code that abolished the death penalty.
However, many of the life prisoners found the clemency insufficient, protesting against a clause in the code that makes them eligible for parole only after they spend 20 years in jail. They argue that the maximum jail term set by the previous, Soviet-era code was only 15 years and that they should now be treated accordingly. Some of them are demanding that their cases be reconsidered by courts because they believe that they did not get fair trials previously.
Several of the convicts were already on hunger strike last August before being visited by senior members of the Armenian parliament who promised to address their concerns. The lawmakers were led by Rafik Petrosian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs.
Petrosian told RFE/RL on Wednesday that he afterwards drafted amendments to the criminal code that would allow local courts to retry those who have spent years on the death row. But he said parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian is against putting those amendments on debate before next fall.
The new code shortened jail terms for most criminal offences, leading to recent months’ release of about 2,600 persons who had been sentenced before its entry into force on August 1. The unofficial amnesty has since cut Armenia’s overall prison population by half.
The code’s retroactive force is not applicable to the life prisoners, a fact resented by the latter.
Saghatelian said that while his ministry understands their concerns, it strongly disapproves of their extraordinary action. “There was no need for a hunger strike because their appeal would have been processed in accordance with the law anyway,” he said, adding that the Justice Ministry will convey their request to the OSCE office.
OSCE officials in Yerevan, meanwhile, were not aware of the prisoner protest as of late afternoon, but signaled their readiness to meet with the protesters. The OSCE has not officially commented on the controversy so far.
Instead, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last week effectively urged the Armenian authorities to meet the prisoners’ demands. “The Assembly believes that this issue should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and urges the authorities concerned to re-examine as soon as possible the cases of those who had asked for a change of sentence or a retrial,” it said in a resolution on the fulfillment of Armenia’s commitments to the pan-European human rights watchdog.