By Emil Danielyan
Police brutality in Armenia has come under a renewed international spotlight with the publication of a Council of Europe report deploring the widespread ill-treatment of detainees and demanding “vigorous” government action to end the practice.
The report unveiled late Wednesday by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), a Council of Europe watchdog, concludes that individuals arrested or interrogated by Armenian law-enforcement bodies run a “significant risk” of torture, humiliation and psychological pressure. It also says that prison conditions in Armenia remain too harsh to meet European standards despite being somewhat improved in recent years.
The lengthy document is the result of a fact-finding visit to Armenia by a delegation of CPT officials in October 2002. They visited prisons, detention cites and police stations across the country and met with high-ranking law-enforcement officials during the trip.
Their report was approved by the CPT in March 2003 and sent to Yerevan’s permanent representative in Strasbourg in the following month. It was finally made public along with the Armenian government’s written response to its findings and recommendations.
“The CPT's delegation received numerous and consistent allegations of physical ill-treatment of persons detained by the police in Armenia,” the report reads. “Almost all of these allegations were made during individual interviews with remand prisoners at the two pre-trial establishments visited.
“The ill-treatment alleged consisted essentially of punches and kicks, and of striking the persons concerned with truncheons and/or other hard objects, such as chair legs, thick metal cables or gun butts. In virtually all cases, it was said to have been inflicted in the context of police interrogation (mostly by operative police officers) and with a view to extracting confessions or information.”
“In the light of all the information gathered during the visit, the CPT can only conclude that persons deprived of their liberty by the police in Armenia run a significant risk of being ill-treated. Vigorous action is required to combat ill-treatment by the police,” the report concludes.
The conclusion mirrors annual reports on the situation with human rights in Armenia by respected watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as the U.S. State Department. The most recent State Department report issued last February said that Armenian security forces continue to routinely beat pre-trial detainees and that many such cases go largely unreported “because of fear of police retribution.”
The CPT made it clear that virtually all of the torture allegations heard by its researchers related to the questioning of criminal suspects in police custody before they were charged and convicted by courts. It came up with a long list of recommendations on how to tackle the police torture, illegal under Armenian law. The first and foremost of them is professional training of security officials in “modern investigation techniques” that require “interpersonal communication skills.”
The Council of Europe body also urges the authorities to ensure, among other things, that persons taken to police stations for questioning are given access to lawyers “from the very outset of their deprivation of liberty,” and not only after they are formally declared criminal suspects as is required by Armenian law now. “Another effective means of preventing ill-treatment by police officers lies in the diligent examination by the competent authorities of all complaints of such treatment brought before them and, where appropriate, the imposition of a suitable penalty,” its report adds.
The Armenian government’s written response to the criticism makes scant reference to the problem of police brutality, saying that “the facts indicated in the report were not concrete” and that the authorities have already taken “adequate measures” to curb the mistreatment of detainees. It instead focuses on the CPT’s description of prison conditions in Armenia and corresponding recommendations.
The CPT report says that although those conditions have improved since the country’s penitentiary system was transferred from the police to the Justice Ministry jurisdiction in 2002, serious problems such as overcrowding in prisons and the shortage of activities for inmates remain. It also expresses concern at the high incidence of tuberculosis among the prisoners. According to government estimates, some 400 inmates, or about 10 percent of the Armenian prison population, are suffering from the grave disease.