By Hovannes Shoghikian
Two dozen men serving life sentences in Armenia’s largest prison went on a brief hunger strike Wednesday in protest at what they claim is a deterioration of their conditions under the new prison administration.
Representatives of the 24 inmates said the new chief of Yerevan’s Nubarashen jail, Vahan Markarian, has toughened the prison regime, making it much more difficult for their relatives to visit and pass parcels on to them. They also alleged a worsening of the quality of food and healthcare provided to them.
“The system has totally changed,” one of the protesting prisoners, Manuk Semerjian, told RFE/RL by phone from the prison. “They force relatives of lifers to wait for seven or eight hours, and have restricted visits.”
“People catch diseases from food. We also can’t get medicines from outside,” added Semerjian, who has spent 16 years at Nubarashen.
The head of an Armenian Justice Ministry department running the country’s prisons, Ashot Martirosian, rejected the claims, saying that unlike his more lenient predecessor, the new Nubarashen chief is simply enforcing the rules set by the law.
“We are not going to meet any illegal demand by those serving life sentences,” Martirosian told RFE/RL. “Let them remain on hunger strike as long as they want,” he said.
The official insisted that the prisoners are well fed. “Sometimes they don’t eat meat every day, but they always get the required minimum amount of calories,” he said.
The Justice Ministry said in a statement later on Wednesday that the lifers ended the hunger strike but did not elaborate. It was not immediately clear if the prison administration made any concessions to the protesters.
The protest was apparently triggered by the death of another lifer, Anushavan Ghazarian, in a Yerevan hospital on Tuesday. Martirosian rejected suggestions that the 25-year-man died because of harsh prison conditions, saying that he had long been suffering from an unspecified chronic illness and had been hospitalized several months ago.
Conditions in Armenian prisons are thought to have improved since they were transferred from the police to the Justice Ministry jurisdiction under pressure from the Council of Europe in 2002. But according to a team of civil society representatives that regularly inspects the penitentiary institutions, they still leave much to be desired.
In an annual report released last month, the representatives of a dozen non-governmental organizations and the Armenian Apostolic Church said the country’s four largest jails do not meet international standards and must be relocated to new buildings. They also concluded that most Armenian prisoners are poorly fed and lack access to adequate healthcare.