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OSCE Watchdog Criticizes Armenian Opposition Trials

Greece -- Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, in Athens, 02Dec2009

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Monday criticized trials of Armenian opposition members arrested following the 2008 presidential election, saying that at least some of them were not fair and exposed “shortcomings” in Armenia’s judicial system.

In a long-anticipated report, the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) questioned the impartiality of judges that ruled on the highly controversial cases. It said they routinely sanctioned pre-trial detentions, ignored torture claims made by defendants and readily accepted incriminating police testimonies at face value.

The Warsaw-based watchdog was at the same time careful not to hold the Armenian government directly responsible for that. “Recognizing that the trials have taken place amid high public tension and received special public attention, the Armenian authorities could have invested more efforts to ensure their fair and impartial adjudication,” it concluded cautiously.

The ODIHR noted that some of the jailed oppositionists and their supporters “often did not show respect for the judges and other participants of the proceedings.” “These challenging circumstances made the work of courts extraordinarily difficult and at the same time raised the bar for their professional performance to the highest levels,” reads its report.

The 114-page report is based on the monitoring of 93 criminal cases that was conducted by ODIHR representatives from April 2008 through July 2009. The ODIHR said that its draft version was submitted to the Armenian authorities last November and that the latter responded to it with written comments on February 4.

The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) and newspapers supporting it have for months speculated that the OSCE is deliberately delaying the report to avoid undercutting President Serzh Sarkisian at a delicate time in his Western-backed efforts to make peace with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

“We consider this report to have been overdue, overdue for political reasons,” Levon Zurabian, the HAK’s central office coordinator, told RFE/RL on Monday. “Apparently, they gave the authorities time to make important decisions on international issues,” he said.

Armenia -- Trial of former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, Yerevan, 17Jun2009
“The delay of this report has enabled the authorities to perpetrate repressions against political prisoners with greater impunity,” charged Zurabian. “And I think that in this sense, the OSCE has its share of responsibility for the existence of political prisoners in Armenia.”

HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and his associates had similarly accused the OSCE-led monitors of emboldening the authorities to use deadly force against opposition protesters in March 2008 with their mostly positive assessment of the election conduct. The U.S. State Department subsequently distanced itself from that verdict, describing the presidential ballot as “significantly flawed.”

More than 120 Ter-Petrosian supporters were arrested in the wake of the vote on charges mainly stemming from the March 2008 deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. Most of them were tried and given prison sentences of up to eight years. The vast majority of those individuals were set free under a general amnesty declared by the authorities in June last year.

The ODIHR report deplores the fact that in virtually all cases Armenian courts allowed law-enforcement bodies to keep arrested opposition leaders and supporters in pre-trial detention. “Police arrests were often improperly and inaccurately documented,
creating doubts about the legality of arrests and detention in police custody,” it says.

The report is equally critical of some the ensuing trials condemned by the Armenian opposition as a travesty of justice. “Judges at times tended to treat the parties unequally, displaying openly friendly attitudes towards the prosecution and openly hostile attitudes towards the defense,” it says. “In some trials, systematic denial of defense motions to introduce and/or examine additional evidence seriously undermined the possibility to present the case for the defense.”

The ODIHR also faulted Armenian courts for routinely discarding torture allegations made by defendants and key witnesses. “Apart from very few exceptions, both prosecutors and judges remained silent in circumstances in which national legislation and international law required them to react,” it said, adding: “Similarly, judges relied on witness statements which were allegedly obtained under duress.”

Many of the jailed oppositionists were convicted on the basis of police testimony, a practice repeatedly condemned by the Council of Europe and mentioned in the ODIHR report. “In numerous cases, statements of police witnesses were the primary basis for convictions, occasionally despite procedural violations, contradictions and a lack of corroborating evidence,” says the report.

The Armenian courts rarely hand down rulings going against the wishes of the government and law-enforcement agencies. The opposition HAK and local human rights believe their handling of the cases related to the post-election unrest followed strict government orders.

The ODIHR clearly did not endorse that view, however. It recommended instead “additional training of judges” and a further reform of Armenia’s criminal justice system that would limit the use of pre-trial detention and uphold the presumption of innocence among other things.

Armenia -- Opposition members and supporters scuffle with police outside a Yerevan court on January 19, 2010.
“We hope that this report can give new impetus to the ongoing efforts by the Armenian authorities to reform the country's justice system in line with international standards and OSCE commitments,” the ODIHR director, Janez Lenarcic, said in a statement.

“We are encouraged by the open attitude we have encountered during the trial monitoring project and value the authorities' input in the process of preparing the final report. It appears that some steps are already being taken to address the identified shortcomings,” added Lenarcic.

According to Zurabian, the HAK will look into the ODIHR report and come up with a detailed evaluation of its conclusions “later on.” But he said even a quick look at the document shows that “justice was not applied to the political prisoners.”