By Karine Kalantarian and Anna Saghabalian
A senior prosecutor dealing with human trafficking admitted on Wednesday that transport of Armenian women for sexual exploitation abroad has reached “alarming” proportions but denied that Armenian law-enforcement authorities are too lenient towards traffickers.
Armen Boshnaghian, a member of an anti-trafficking task force at the Armenian Prosecutor-General’s Office, said prostitution rings operating in the country are making “large-scale criminal revenues.”
“I would say that the phenomenon is an alarming reality in Armenia,” he told RFE/RL. “Some steps have been taken to counter it. They are only the first steps. They are just the beginning of a very long and difficult road.”
In an annual global report on the problem released on Monday, the U.S. State Department said Armenia remains a “major source and, to a lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation.” The department placed Armenia on its human trafficking “watch list” for a second consecutive year, saying that Yerevan’s stated crackdown on the practice has made little progress.
The U.S. report also said that despite a reported increase in the number of trafficking-related criminal cases opened by Armenian prosecutors only a handful of individuals were imprisoned on relevant charges last year. “While the government increased implementation of its anti-trafficking law, it failed to impose significant penalties for convicted traffickers,” it said.
Boshnaghian disagreed, insisting that in fact 15 persons convicted of involvement in trafficking were handed jail sentences in 2005. He did acknowledge that Armenian courts are not tough enough on traffickers, but said Armenia’s “lenient” Criminal Code is primarily to blame for that.
The prosecutor also dismissed U.S. claims that the Armenian authorities are reluctant to punish law-enforcement officials allegedly cooperating with prostitution networks that recruit and send young women abroad, mainly to the United Arab Emirates. He argued that an Armenian police officer was fired and prosecuted on related charges last year.
The State Department report noted that another member of the Armenian anti-trafficking unit, Aristakes Yeremian, was implicated by an investigative journalist in extorting bribes from Armenian pimps and prostitutes in Dubai. The Prosecutor-General’s Office said earlier this year that it has investigated the allegations and found them baseless.
John Miller, a senior State Department official in charge of tracking the problem around the world, insisted on Wednesday that there is a public perception in Armenia that corruption among law-enforcement officials seriously hampers the fight against human trafficking. “The lack of public trust [in law-enforcement bodies] is a serious obstacle to progress in this area,” Miller told Armenian journalists in a video conference from Washington.