WASHINGTON, DC (RFE/RL) — The United States has praised Armenia for reforms in a number of areas, including the holding of elections “with respect for fundamental freedoms” and fighting “systemic government corruption.”
A U.S. Department of State report on human rights practices for 2018 also referred to other developments in Armenia over last year, including a renewed investigation of the 2008 post-election crackdown.
“[Prime Minister Nikol] Pashinyan’s government gave new impetus to accountability for the events surrounding the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, in which eight civilians and two police officers were killed,” the report says, noting that former president Robert Kocharian is among high profile suspects in the criminal cases launched by the Special Investigation Service.
The U.S. Department of State cites Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic as noting the steps taken by the Armenian government “to finally establish responsibility for the 10 deaths”, but stressing that “this should be done carefully and in strict adherence to the principles of rule of law, judicial independence, transparency and guarantees of fair trial, in order to dispel any accusations of alleged revenge politics or selective justice.”
In previous years’ reports the U.S. Department of State usually criticized the Armenian government for systemic corruption, violence against journalists and the opposition, violations of the freedoms of speech and assembly, arbitrariness of law-enforcement bodies and electoral fraud. This time the report says: “The new government launched a series of investigations to prosecute systemic government corruption, and the country held its first truly competitive elections on December 9.”
As an example of combating corruption the report cites “the first criminal case of illicit enrichment” in which Vachagan Ghazarian, the longtime chief bodyguard of former president Serzh Sarkisian, was arrested “after law enforcement personnel found more than one million dollars in cash in a nightclub owned by his wife.”
It is mentioned in the report that according to the prime minister’s anticorruption adviser, between May 7 and August 10, law enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations in the amount of 41.7 billion drams (almost $87 million), constituting damages to the state, embezzlement, abuse of official duty, and bribes. “Headline cases included tax underpayments and unexplained wealth on the part of parliamentarians, well-connected political figures, or their respective business holdings. In one illustrative case, according to the government, the Yerevan City supermarket chain, affiliated with member of parliament Samvel Alexanian, was found to have underpaid tens of millions of dollars in taxes.”
After the change of government in Armenia the U.S. Department of State also observes positive changes in terms of political freedoms and rights in the South Caucasus country.
“Before the May change in government, there were numerous reports of authorities tapping telephone communications, email, and other digital communications of individuals the government wanted to keep under scrutiny, including human rights defenders, activists, and political figures. According to some human rights observers, authorities maintained “dossiers” of activists, political figures, and others that were used to exert pressure on a person. Following the “velvet revolution,” many activists and human rights defenders expressed their belief that they were no longer under surveillance,” the report reads.
The report notes that “following the “velvet revolution,” many judges released from pretrial detention many suspects in politically sensitive cases.” “According to human rights groups, since no other circumstances had changed in their cases, this was an indication that, before the April/May events, judicial decisions to hold those suspects in detention, instead of on bail were politically motivated.”
In the section on “Political Parties and Political Participation” it is said: “The law does not restrict the registration or activity of political parties. Prior to the “velvet revolution,” however, authorities suppressed political pluralism in other ways.”
“While political pluralism expanded after the May change in government, observers noted increased radicalization in society, reflected most acutely in social media, that shrank the space for criticism of the new government, since any dissent was labeled as “counterrevolutionary” by Civil Contract supporters. Some opposition political actors alleged that the new government directed public pressure against them.”
In terms of freedom of expression, the U.S. Department of State’s report says that “before the “velvet revolution,” the government exerted economic pressure on media outlets for favorable and uncritical coverage.”
“After the May change in government, the media environment became more free as some outlets began to step away from self-censorship; however, some still refrained from critical comments of the new government not to appear “counterrevolutionary”… According to some media watchdogs, public television continued to present news from a pro-government standpoint.”
Use of fake social media accounts and attempts to manipulate the media, however, increased dramatically after the “velvet revolution.” According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” fake Facebook groups and fake stories, to attack the government. In one example, a video circulated on September 17 supposedly showing Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan calling himself “crazy” and “absolutely abnormal.” The Union of Informed Citizens media watchdog published a document alleging the video was fake because of several inconsistencies in the video.
The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited or no revenues from advertising.
The media advertising market did not change substantially after the “velvet revolution” and key market players remained the same. According to a 2016 report by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales conglomerate Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders and controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating in a manner similar to MIS.
In the past the U.S. Department of State cited serious concerns of human rights activists about deaths in the army and dubious investigations with alleged use of torture to extract evidence. This time, according to the report, the Special Investigation Service has instituted criminal proceedings over one such case.
“According to Peace Dialogue [human rights organization] his was the first case in recent years when, parallel to the investigation of a death in the armed forces, a criminal investigation was opened to assess possible violations of the law by the investigative body,” the report says.
The U.S. Department of State report says that the Armenian authorities are now more open in terms of holding accountable police officials and other representatives of the law-enforcement system. “Lieutenant-general Levon Yeranosian, the former chief of the internal police troops, faced charges of exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences for his role in the violence against protesters,” the report says, reminding also that “on May 13, the Special Investigation Service charged the commander of the Yerevan Police Department Escort Battalion, Armen Ghazarian, with torture for his role in the June 2017 police beatings of four members of the armed group Sasna Tsrer during an altercation.”
The most controversial area in which the U.S. Department of State observed no changes is the judicial system. The report notes: “Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. After the May change in government, distrust in the impartiality of judges continued, and some human rights lawyers stated there were no legal safeguards for judicial independence.”
“Attorneys reported that in the past, the Court of Cassation dictated the outcome of all significant cases to lower-court judges… Many observers blamed the High Judicial Council [headed by former Constitutional Court chair Gagik Harutiunian] for abuse of power and for appointing only judges who were connected to the previous ruling party. Attorneys also stated the HJC’s control of the appointments, promotions, and relocation of judges weakened judicial independence,” the report reads.