By Karine KalantarianArmenian courts underscored their lack of independence last year by continuing to sanction pre-trial arrests of suspects in almost all criminal cases opened by prosecutors, lawyers and a senior judge said on Tuesday.
According to figures made public by a senior member Armenia’s Court of Appeals, Mher Khachatrian, more than 96 percent of 5,116 arrest petitions filed by prosecutors in 2003 were approved by various-level judges. Less than half of those remanded in custody were convicted and sentenced to prison terms in subsequent trials.
Under Armenian law police or the prosecutors need a court order to keep criminal suspects in jail for more than 72 hours. Human rights activists have long complained that many of the pre-trial detentions are not justified and make it easier for investigators to extract false confessions or secure unfair guilty verdicts by the courts.
Speaking at a seminar in Yerevan, Khachatrian admitted that the Armenian courts remain submissive to the security apparatus. “An individual must be stripped of freedom only when it is extremely necessary,” he said. “But our courts seem to be scared. Maybe some legislative changes are needed.”
Prominent Armenian lawyers attending the seminar used stronger language to deplore the phenomenon dating back to the Soviet times. “The courts simply commit crimes,” one of them, Ruben Sahakian, said.
Another attorney argued that the existing Armenian Code of Procedural Justice allows the courts to refuse arrests and grant bail in many cases. Only 63 suspects were released on bail in 2003.
The problem came to light during the ongoing criminal investigation into the opposition Artarutyun bloc’s campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation. Several senior members of the bloc, including former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, were arrested earlier this month on charges of calling for “a violent overthrow of constitutional order” and “publicly insulting” senior government officials. The oppositionists have already been declared “political prisoners” by some local human rights groups.
They were remanded in custody pending trial by a Yerevan court of first instance. The ruling was upheld by the higher-level Review Court even though Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdian, called for their release. The chairman of the Review Court, Tigran Sahakian, who also attended the seminar, declined a comment.