By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian authorities have maintained a poor human rights record over the past year with their “repressive tactics” of dealing with the opposition, restrictions on press freedom and failure to tackle widespread police brutality, according to Human Rights Watch.
The respected global watchdog reiterated its strong criticism of President Robert Kocharian’s spring crackdown on his political opponents in an annual report on human rights practices around the world released on Thursday. It also accused the European Union of doing little to prevent human rights abuses in Armenia.
“Repeating a cycle of repressive tactics from the 2003 election, the authorities arrested opposition leaders and supporters, violently dispersed demonstrators, raided political party headquarters, attacked journalists, and restricted travel to prevent people from participating in demonstrations,” reads the report’s section on Armenia.
The New York-based group had already denounced the “cycle of repression” in a more detailed report issued in May.
Its latest document describes the heavy-handed dispersal of an opposition demonstration in Yerevan on the night from April 12-13 as a “dramatic low point” in the authorities’ respect for human and civil rights. Security forces used truncheons, water cannons and stun grenades to break up the protest staged near Kocharian’s official residence. Kocharian and his allies say the use of force was justified as the opposition actions amounted to a coup attempt.
HRW insisted, however, that it was “excessive.” “An environment of impunity for attacks against government critics continues,” it said, pointing to the beatings of opposition leaders, journalists and a local human rights activists during the three-month arrest.
“Security forces and unknown assailants have carried out a series of brutal attacks on journalists who were reporting on opposition rallies. Attackers confiscated and smashed journalists’ equipment, significantly preventing television coverage of these events and their violent dispersal,” says the report.
According to HRW, the violence highlighted the Kocharian administrations continuing efforts to “restrict full media freedom in the country.” It mentioned, among other things, the controversial decision by a private Armenian channel to stop broadcasting a TV program produced by RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The management of the Kentron TV cited unspecified financial motives for the move. But as the HRW report notes, “RFE/RL believed that a high-level government official had forced the cancellation.”
The report also addresses the widespread mistreatment of criminal suspects, which local and international watchdogs view as the most common form of human rights abuses in Armenia.
“Police beat and threatened to rape the detainees, later releasing them either without charge, or with petty charges punishable with fines or short periods of imprisonment under the Administrative Code. No officials were held to account for these incidents,” it says.
Among the few positive developments mentioned by HRW is the official registration last October of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But despite that, says the report, the authorities continued to imprison male members of the Christian sect refusing compulsory military service.
Also mentioned was the role of international organizations. HRW praised the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for forcing Yerevan to roll back some of its “authoritarian practices,” but was critical of the European Union.
“Unfortunately, the EU failed to use [its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Armenia] publicly to encourage human rights improvements, issuing a press release that did not raise human rights concerns,” it said.