By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s Office of the Human Rights Defender formally resumed its activities on Monday, with President Robert Kocharian saying that it should do a better job under a new ombudsman loyal to his administration.
The work of the state agency, set up two years ago under pressure from the Council of Europe, was controversially suspended by the Armenian government on January 13 following the resignation of the first, presidentially appointed head, Larisa Alaverdian. The move was criticized by local and international human rights organizations.
Alaverdian’s newly appointed successor Armen Harutiunian met with Kocharian as he officially began performing his duties. “Armen Harutiunian said that he will do his best to make the institution of the human rights defender an established structure and to win public trust,” read a statement by the presidential press service.
The statement quoted Kocharian as saying that he expects “considerable progress in the area of human rights protection, which will also contribute to an increase in public trust in the laws.” The remark appeared to be a thinly veiled jibe at Alaverdian whose repeated criticism of the Armenian authorities’ human rights record reportedly irked Kocharian.
The criticism is thought to be the reason why the authorities refused to let Alaverdian continue to perform her duties until the election of a new ombudsman by the National Assembly in accordance with Armenia’s recently amended constitution. They also blocker her attempt to address the parliament with a report detailing her activities last year.
Meanwhile, Harutiunian, who has long advised Kocharian on legal matters and headed a state-run school of public administration until now, began his first day in office by holding separate meetings by each of about 50 employees of the human rights agency. Some of them were bemused by the procedure, telling RFE/RL that they expected Harutiunian to set out his agenda in a general meeting with the staff. They also appeared unsure of their future.
Harutiunian explained that he considers separate meetings a better way of “getting to know people.” He said he plans to carry out “structural reforms” at the Office of the Human Rights Defender and has already asked his subordinates to submit relevant proposals.
The National Assembly had to vote twice to elect the 42-year-old lawyer as ombudsman for a six-year term on Friday under strong pressure from Kocharian. The latter was reportedly incensed by his candidate’s unexpected failure to garner a sufficient number of votes two weeks ago.
Although Harutiunian pledged to combat widespread human rights abuses in Armenia, opposition leaders and human rights campaigners believe that his agency will now be far more subservient to the president.
“Armen Harutiunian must have taken note of Larisa Alaverdian’s fate,” said Aram Sarkisian, the leader of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party. “I don’t think that he will act against the authorities that appointed him.”
“Having said that, Larisa Alaverdian too was appointed by them, but after seeing all the illegalities she just couldn’t keep silent,” added Sarkisian.
Another prominent oppositionist, Artashes Geghamian, also expressed hope that the new ombudsman will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. Incidentally, Harutiunian’s late father was a senior member of Geghamian’s National Unity Party. “If he acts like his father, I’m sure that everything will be alright,” said Geghamian.
(Presidential press service photo)