By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s parliament passed on Monday a controversial law that allows law-enforcement authorities to wire-tap any telephone conversation without a court authorization.
The Armenian government, which the drafted the law, says it is aimed at making it easier for the police, the National Security Service (NSS) as well as tax and customs bodies to combat and investigate various crimes.
The opposition minority in the National Assembly insisted, however, that the bill’s main purpose is to stifle dissent by facilitating police surveillance of politicians, public figures and journalists critical of the government. Lawmakers representing the opposition Zharangutyun and Orinats Yerkir parties accused the authorities of seeking to turn Armenia into a police state.
Their last-ditch attempts to scuttle the bill’s adoption proved unsuccessful. The government-controlled parliament voted by 65 to 3, with 8 abstentions, to pass it in the third and final reading.
“This parliament is worthy of such a law,” Stepan Safarian, a Zharangutyun deputy, declared after the vote.
The remark prompted a stern rebuke from speaker Tigran Torosian, who accused Safarian of insulting fellow legislators.
The government measure, which also allows the authorities to read private mail at will, was made possible by one of the Western-backed amendments to Armenia’s constitution enacted in the November 2005 constitutional referendum. The Armenian constitution stipulated until then that citizens’ privacy can not be breached without the permission of local courts. It now allows phone tapping “in cases specified by law.”
Many opposition politicians and even journalists have long suspected that their phones are illegally wire-tapped by the NSS, the Armenian successor the Soviet KGB. It is not uncommon for them to avoid discussing confidential matters by phone, a habit dating back to Soviet times.