By Emil Danielyan
The United States has made yet another negative assessment of human rights protection in Armenia, singling out its government’s failure to hold democratic elections, rein in widespread police torture and boost press freedom over the past year.
“The [Armenian] Government’s human rights record remained poor; although there were some improvements in a few areas, serious problems remained,” the U.S. State Department said in its annual report on human rights practices around the world that was released on Wednesday.
The Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003, tainted with reports of vote rigging, figure prominently in the report’s 17-page chapter devoted to Armenia. “International observers found both the presidential and parliamentary elections during the year to be well below international standards, with serious irregularities, and opposition supporters were detained between the two rounds of the presidential elections under provisions of the Soviet-era Administrative Code,” it says.
Washington was particularly critical of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the presidential ballot held in two rounds in February and March 2003. The State Department said at the time that Yerevan “missed an important opportunity to advance democratization.”
Its latest report reminded of the controversial arrests of hundreds of opposition supporters during the presidential race. “Most of the individuals charged for their participation in opposition demonstrations were subjected to closed administrative hearings with no counsel present that determined the level of punishment: fines or up to 15 days’ detention.”
The rest of the report echoes earlier Armenia-related findings of the U.S. government. It says that security forces continue to routinely beat pre-trial detainees and that most such cases “went unreported because of fear of police retribution.” “The majority of investigations and interview techniques were based on traditional Soviet methods,” it says.
The conclusion is in tune with periodical reports issued by independent international watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which see police brutality as the most common form of human rights violation in Armenia. Both groups have for years pointed to the authorities’ failure to punish security officials involved in such abuses and enact laws that would ensure the due process.
“The Criminal Procedure Code does not allow detainees to file a complaint in court prior to trial to redress abuses committed by the Procurator’s Office, the police, or other security forces during criminal investigations,” the U.S. report says. “Witnesses have no right to legal counsel during questioning while in police custody…Failure to testify is a criminal offense, and detainees must obtain permission from the police or the Procurator’s Office to obtain a forensic medical examination to substantiate a report of torture.”
“Procurators continued to overshadow defense lawyers and judges during trials,” it adds.
Another major highlight of the report is the state of media freedoms which the State Department believes have “some limits” in Armenia. “There was no official censorship, publications presented a variety of views, and the opposition press regularly criticized government policies and leaders, including the President, on sensitive issues such as the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and privatization.”
The document adds, however, that most local journalists continue to practice “self-censorship” and that the authorities refuse to reopen Armenia’s leading independent television station A1+ that was controversially forced off the air nearly two years ago. It notes that most of the other major private networks “provided heavily biased reporting in favor of incumbent President Kocharian during the presidential election campaign.”