By Emil Danielyan
An annual global survey of freedom by a respected U.S. watchdog paints a largely bleak picture of political rights and civil liberties in Armenia, concluding that its citizens have been unable to change their government through elections since independence.
According to Freedom House, the country remains “partly free” due to chronic electoral fraud as well as “some limits” on press freedom and “widespread violations of due process.”
“Armenians cannot change their government democratically,” the New York-based organization declared in a report issued late Thursday. “The 1995 and 1999 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections were characterized by serious irregularities. The most recent presidential and parliamentary polls, in February-March and May 2003, respectively, were strongly criticized by international election monitors, who cited widespread fraud particularly in the presidential vote.”
The 2003 Armenian elections are a major theme of the report titled “Freedom in the World 2004.” Citing Human Rights Watch, it notes that hundreds of opposition activists were arrested in the wake of the presidential ballot for attending unsanctioned opposition demonstrations.
Freedom House said the authorities’ handling of the polls led it to assign a “downward trend arrow” to Armenia which indicates a worsening of the situation since the previous survey that dealt with the events of 2002. However, that did not affect its average rating of political freedom in the country.
Armenia and neighboring Georgia, also rated “partly free,” both scored 4 points on a seven-point negative scale. The third South Caucasus state, Azerbaijan, was again described as “not free” in the comparative assessment of 210 countries and territories of the world. In another blow to Baku, the survey upgraded the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region’s status from “not free” to “partly free.”
The latest Freedom House research covers the events of last year and therefore makes no mention of the Armenian authorities’ heavy-handed response to last spring’s opposition campaign for regime change. The crackdown prompted even more strongly-worded criticisms from Human Rights Watch and other international human rights bodies.
“There are some limits on freedom of the press, and self-censorship among journalists is common, particularly in reporting on Nagorno-Karabakh, national security, or corruption issues,” says the report.
Freedom House’s separate survey of press freedom around the world released in April went farther, saying that the Armenian media are “not free.” The watchdog cited “the government’s repeated use of security or criminal libel laws to stifle criticism” and the closure of the independent A1+ television.
The freedom survey is also very critical of Armenia’s judiciary and law-enforcement bodies, saying that they are “subject to political pressure from the executive branch.” “Police frequently make arbitrary arrests without warrants, beat detainees during arrest and interrogation, and use torture to extract confessions,” it adds.