“Authorities restricted the right of citizens to freely change their government in [the May 2009] mayoral elections in Yerevan,” the U.S. State Department said late Thursday in an annual report scrutinizing human rights practices around the world.
“During the year authorities subjected citizens, particularly those considered by the government to be political opponents, to arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment for their political activities; lengthy pretrial detention also continued to be a problem,” concludes the report.
“Authorities continued to use harassment and intrusive application of bureaucratic measures to intimidate and retaliate against political opponents. Authorities used force to disperse political demonstrations and constrain citizens seeking to publicize them. Police beat pretrial detainees and failed to provide due process in some cases.”
Ill-treatment of criminal suspects in police custody has long been regarded as the most frequent form of human rights violation in Armenia. According to the State Department, the illegal practice has continued unabated, with the Armenian police and other security bodies “regularly” beating and bullying detainees to extract false confessions.
“Witnesses continued to report that police beat citizens during arrest and interrogation while in detention,” says its report. “Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported similar allegations; however, most cases of police mistreatment continued to go unreported because of fear of retribution.”
The extensive report also says “numerous” Armenians claimed to have been mistreated by security offices to falsely incriminate dozens of opposition members arrested following the February 2008 presidential election and the ensuing street violence in Yerevan. “Most or all of these arrests appeared politically influenced to varying degrees,” it says.
As a rule, Armenian courts dismiss torture claims made during the opposition-related and other trials. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which compiled the report, appeared to attribute this to the broader lack of judicial independence in the country. Armenian courts, it said, “remained regularly subject to political pressure from the executive branch.”
“The [Armenian] law provides for the presumption of innocence; in practice, however, this right was frequently violated,” says its report. “According to court statistics, the courts rendered only seven acquittals out of a total of 2,407 verdicts handed down during the year, for an acquittal rate of approximately 0.3 percent.”
The Armenian judiciary was also criticized this week by the main democracy watchdog of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In a long-awaited report, the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) concluded that at least some of the trials of the arrested oppositionists were not fair because of a pro-government bias shown by judges.
The Armenian government and judicial authorities have yet to react to the criticism. The main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) on Friday portrayed the ODIHR report as further proof of its view that “justice was not applied” to the jailed oppositionists.
Levon Zurabian, a leader of the opposition alliance, at the same time criticized the Warsaw-based watchdog for making no “political evaluation” of the controversial trials. He also stood by his claims that the OSCE deliberately delayed the publication of the report to avoid undercutting President Serzh Sarkisian.
The State Department noted that approximately 13 individuals jailed in connection with the 2008 vote and post-election unrest remained incarcerated as of the end of 2009. It charged that Armenian law-enforcement bodies continued to “arbitrarily detain individuals due to their opposition political affiliations or political activities” and restrict freedom of assembly. “Police regularly used force to break up the daily gatherings of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian in downtown Yerevan,” argued the department.
The report goes on to describe the disputed municipal elections in Yerevan as “significantly flawed.” The State Department used the same phrase to assess the authorities’ conduct of the last presidential ballot.
The department further deplored a lack of “media pluralism” in Armenia and “multiple attacks against journalists” reported last year. “Corruption remained widespread, and authorities did not make determined efforts to combat it,” it added.
The report prompted diametrically opposite comments from Armenia’s leading pro-government and opposition parties. Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of President Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said his assessment of its findings is “very negative.”
“It does not correspond to reality,” Sahakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “It’s a biased report which I think not only fails to help Armenia’s public and authorities but may also have bad consequences.”
But Armen Martirosian, a leader of the opposition Zharangutyun party, strongly disagreed. “The facts contained in the report are absolutely true,” he said. “I’m saying this … as a person who has felt all these problems this on his skin.”