By Karine Kalantarian
President Robert Kocharian rejected through a spokesman on Thursday renewed criticism of his administration’s human rights record that has been voiced by a respected international watchdog.
In its annual World Report released on Wednesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the Armenian authorities of continuing to restrict civil rights, bully their political opponents and tolerate police brutality. “Although the international community continued in 2005 to look favorably on Armenia for its economic performance, the government has failed to improve its human rights record,” it said.
Reacting to the report, Kocharian’s press secretary Victor Soghomonian said many of HRW’s Armenia-related assessments are “not objective.” “Many parts of the report are bewildering because they have nothing to do with reality,” he told RFE/RL.
Soghomonian singled out HRW claims that criminal suspects are routinely tortured in Armenia and that the authorities stirred up violent incidents to disrupt opposition gatherings in 2005.
“Torture and ill-treatment in police custody remain widespread in Armenia,” reads the HRW report. “Torture usually occurs in pre-trial detention with the aim of coercing a confession or evidence against third parties.”
Most of the local and international human rights groups would agree with this assertion. A fact-finding delegation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which inspected Armenian prisons and detention centers in 2003, concluded in a subsequent report that individuals kept in pre-trial detention in Armenia run a “significant risk” of torture and other degrading treatment by law-enforcement officials.
Human Rights Watch said the Kocharian administration also restricts citizens’ freedom of assembly. “On repeated occasions in 2005, nongovernmental organizations and political parties attempted to hold public gatherings at which police or unidentified people interfered, grabbing banners and placards, or triggering disturbances,” it said, citing the disruption of an April 2005 opposition rally held in the town of Sevan.
“Many of Armenia’s obligations to the Council of Europe remain unfulfilled, including resolving the problem of the use of administrative arrests for political purposes, providing plurality in the electronic media, and resolving the issue of alternative service,” added the HRW report.
The report’s findings were backed by Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, an independent human rights group. “All instances of human rights violation in Armenia mentioned in the report correspond to reality,” he said. “The report is impartial and objective.”
It was also essentially endorsed by Larisa Alaverdian, Armenia’s first human rights ombudsperson who was relieved of her duties earlier this month. Alaverdian, who has been locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with the authorities, said the latter should take the HRW criticism seriously.
Incidentally, HRW also accused the authorities of interfering with Alaverdian’s work in the course of last year. “The authorities have a history of putting pressure on human rights defenders who are critical of the government,” it said. “In 2005, such pressure extended to the ombudsperson’s office.