Nils Muiznieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (CE), has presented a report on Armenia based on the results of his visit to the South Caucasus country last October.
In his report the CE Commissioner addresses a number of issues concerning the administration of justice and the protection of human rights in the justice system of Armenia, in particular, in regards to the deadly 2008 post-election clashes, the conviction of an oppositionist’s teenage son, non-combat deaths in the Armenia and others.
In his report the Commissioner notes that “strong perceptions persist in parts of society that justice is meted out in a selective manner, and that there appears to be a sense of sharp contrast between, on the one side, the apparent leniency towards those thought to be connected to the authorities or representing them, even if they have allegedly been implicated in grave violations and, on the other, the harsh treatment and sentences imposed upon those opposing the authorities.”
“The lack of results in the investigation into the ten deaths which occurred during the March 2008 events further strengthens this perception and contributes to the low public trust in the judiciary,” the report says.
The Commissioner reminds that the issue had also been closely followed by the former Commissioner, who in his 2011 report urged the Armenian authorities to pursue vigorously the investigation into the death cases and the instances of police abuse during arrest and detention, and raised the question of the command responsibility of senior police and security officials who were in charge during the events.
“One of the recommendations of that report was to ensure that the families of the victims are fully involved with and informed about the investigation, as provided for by the Court’s case-law. The public should be informed of the progress and outcome of the investigation, as justice should be seen to be done,” Muiznieks says.
During his visit to Armenia on October 5-9, 2014, the CE Commissioner also discussed the case of Shahen Harutiunian, a 15-year-old who had participated in an opposition rally together with his father where a confrontation with the police had taken place. “The prosecution had requested five years of imprisonment for this minor, who was fourteen at the time of the events in question. In the end, Shahen Harutiunian was sentenced… to conditional imprisonment with a four-year probation period. This case raises the problem of juvenile justice more generally - various actors have pointed out that juveniles are especially vulnerable in the Armenian criminal justice system, and are not protected in practice by the necessary safeguards against violations of their rights.”
During their meeting with Muiznieks during his visit to Armenia last year the relatives and friends of Shant Harutiunian, a jailed protest leader, drew his attention to the fact that several weeks before the verdict of the court, at a question-and-answer session in New York’s Columbia University Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian referred to Harutiunian and his arrested supporters as “criminals.”
In his March 10 report the CE Commissioner writes: “The legal aid system should be reinforced and the judicial, public and political actors should scrupulously respect the principle of the presumption of innocence prior to the assessment of facts by the competent judicial authority.”
He also finds it necessary to stress the following: “A fair trial must not be undermined by prejudicial statements, in particular those made by judicial authorities and public officials. The Commissioner received information about alleged breaches of the principle of the presumption of innocence. Monitoring carried out by NGOs based on extensive interviews revealed that this principle is ineffective in practice due to judges’ “biased” and “negatively disposed” attitude towards criminal suspects. The testimony given by defendants during trials is generally disregarded by courts, and statements denying self-incriminating evidence obtained at the pretrial stage and/or of ill-treatment or coerced confessions are seen as “attempts to evade responsibility”.”
Based on information from various interlocutors the Commissioner concludes that the prosecution retains a dominant position in the Armenian criminal justice system, “i.e. that the latter is still marked by the legacy of prosecutorial bias.”
The CE Commissioner also summarizes reported serious human rights violations in the army and problems with fair trial.
He regrets to note that acts of non-combat violence, sometimes resulting in deaths, have continued to occur in the Armenian army. He calls upon the Armenian authorities to intensify their efforts to tackle this problem, in particular through effective investigations of allegations of human rights abuse.
“Effective investigations of any allegations of human rights abuses are essential to prevent any further violations. In this context, attention must be paid to fostering the trust of the victims’ families and the public. The authorities in charge should provide information to the public about the outcome of investigations into death cases and other human rights violations,” the report says.
According to it, the Commissioner has, in particular, received worrying reports by relatives regarding the investigation into deaths of servicemen, which are sometimes pending for a long time. “Many of the problems reported are common to the criminal justice system as a whole and, in addition to undue delays, relate to: flawed forensic examination; coerced testimonies and confessions; improper qualification of crimes; and lack of involvement of victims’ relatives. The Commissioner is struck by the high level of distrust of the families of the victims and civil society in relation to such investigations. A common complaint is that victims are not allowed access to the materials of the case and the information they provide is not given proper consideration by the authorities. Even in a case which has led to convictions – the 2010 death of Artak Nazarian, where five persons were convicted to prison terms ranging from three to ten years - the relatives of the deceased believe that justice has not been served, maintaining that he was murdered, rather than driven to suicide as the investigation concluded.”
In his report the CE Commissioner also addresses problems of the judicial system. The commissioner is, in particular, concerned about the reported interference by senior judicial instances in the work of lower-court judges. “The independence of each individual judge is essential to the independence of the judiciary as a whole. Individual judges must be allowed to adjudicate cases independently and they should be free from any improper influence, either by external actors or higher judicial instances. There should be effective mechanisms for addressing instances of undue interference with the activities of judges in the administration of justice. Disciplinary proceedings must not be used as an instrument of influence or retaliation against judges, and necessary safeguards need to be put in place to prevent their arbitrary use.”
The report also addresses problems of pretrial detention. “Besides its frequent use, the length of pretrial detention also remains a problem,” it mentions.
The Commissioner also voices concern over reports that illegally-obtained evidence, in particular, in the form of a coerced confession is regularly used in courts.
“The phenomenon of torture and ill-treatment should be seen in the context of the functioning of the criminal justice system in Armenia. The reliance of investigative bodies on confessions and information obtained during questioning with a view to securing convictions and the lack of procedural safeguards against ill-treatment from the very outset of custody –including the right to inform a close relative or another person of one’s custody, the right of access to a lawyer, the right of access to a doctor and information on rights – provide favorable grounds for the occurrence of such abuse,” the report says.