WASHINGTON, DC (RFE/RL) — The Armenian government took steps in 2019 to investigate and punish alleged abuses by former and current government officials and law enforcement authorities, according to an annual U.S. Department of State report on human rights practices.
As evidence the country report for Armenia published on March 11 refers to criminal cases and trials involving former high-ranking government officials.
“On September 12, hearings began in a high-profile case against former officials for their alleged involvement in sending the military to break up protests following the 2008 presidential election, in which eight civilians and two police officers were killed. Charges filed in this and associated criminal cases included allegations of overthrowing the constitutional order, abuse and exceeding official authority, torture, complicity in bribery, official fraud, and falsification of evidence connected with the investigation of the 2008 postelection events,” the U.S. Department of State says, listing the names of high-profile suspects in the cases, including former president Robert Kocharian.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of State quotes Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatovic as noting in her report “the importance of conducting the process in a careful manner, ‘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 revenge politics or selective justice.”
Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of State says that more than a decade after the deadly post-election events of March 2008, in June 2019, the Armenian parliament adopted a law on providing assistance to the victims of the violence, and in September the government allocated 720 million drams (about $1.5 million) to assist victims and their families.
Referring to human rights violations in Armenia last year, the U.S. Department of State highlights shortcomings in the judicial sphere, indicating “significant problems with the independence of the judiciary.”
“Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. After the 2018 political transition, popular distrust in the impartiality of judges remained strong, and NGOs highlighted that the justice sector retained many officials who served the previous authorities. Corruption of judges remained a concern,” the report says.
It reminded that in May “in an apparent reaction to the release of former president Robert Kocharian from detention by a Yerevan court, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian called on his supporters to block access to courts throughout the country, a move questioned by some observers as pressuring the judiciary.”
Speaking about the judiciary, the U.S. Department of State observed that “following the “Velvet Revolution,” many judges released suspects in politically sensitive cases from pretrial detention.”
“According to human rights groups, because no other circumstances had changed in their cases, this was an indication that, before the April and May 2018 events, judicial decisions to hold those suspects in detention instead of allowing their release on bail were politically motivated.”
The Armenian judiciary came under criticism also for an “increasing tendency to fall back into the previous practice of applying pretrial detention.” “Lengthy pretrial detention remained a chronic problem,” the U.S. Department of State says, referring to the government’s statistics, according to which as of October 1, approximately 45 percent of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees.
The report also refers to abuse in police stations and in prisons. “According to human rights activists, impunity for past instances of police abuse contributed to the persistence of the problem, although to a lesser extent than observed prior to the 2018 “Velvet Revolution.” Furthermore, observers contended that the failure to prosecute these past cases was linked to the lack of change in the composition of law enforcement bodies since the 2018 political transition, other than at the leadership level.”
As for prisons, the report notes that according to the Prison Monitoring Group, “political will at the highest level to eradicate corruption in the penitentiaries had not yet been translated into institutional change.”
As for corruption, the U.S. Department of State says that Armenia has “a legacy of systemic corruption in many areas, including construction, mining, public administration, the parliament, the judiciary, procurement practices, and provision of grants by the state.”
“There were allegations of embezzlement of state funds, involvement of government officials in questionable business activities, and tax and customs privileges for government-linked companies. In 2018 the government made combating corruption one of its top priorities and continued to take measures to eliminate it during the year. Although top officials announced the “eradication of corruption” in the country, local observers noted that anticorruption measures needed further institutionalization. Criminal corruption cases were uncovered in the tax and customs services, the ministries of education and health care, and the judiciary,” the report says.
“According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, in the 13 months ending in June, enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations in the amount of 110.5 billion drams (almost $230 million), constituting damages to the state, embezzlement, abuse of official duty, and bribes. Of this amount, 30.1 billon drams ($63 million) was reportedly paid to the state budget; NGOs raised concerns regarding insufficient transparency in this process.
“During the year former officials made public announcements of their intent to return assets to the state, allegedly to avoid prosecution. The process by which the government accepted or negotiated such arrangements were unclear.”
Speaking about omissions, the U.S. Department of State refers to media reports throughout the year that “the Ministry of Defense was providing incomplete information or not reporting on certain noncombat deaths in the army.” “Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) voiced concern regarding the Defense Ministry’s classification of military deaths and the practice of qualifying many noncombat deaths as suicides, making it less likely that abuses would be uncovered and investigated.”
At the same time, the report says that in its July 8 biannual report on the human rights situation in the armed forces, the NGO Peace Dialogue noted that, for the first time, the Ministry of Defense had designated the protection of soldiers’ human rights as an organizational priority: “On July 24, the Defense Ministry launched a “trust line,” a telephone number that soldiers may call to submit complaints, ask for assistance, and provide suggestions.”
The report also presents observations on media. The U.S. Department of State says that since the 2018 political transition, the media environment in Armenia has been freer. “However, there were reports that some outlets avoided criticizing the authorities so as not to appear ‘counterrevolutionary’,” it adds.
“According to some media watchdogs, public television continued to present news from a pro-government standpoint, replacing one government perspective with another in the aftermath of the political transition. Nonetheless, public television was open and accessible to the opposition as well and covered more diverse topics of public interest than before.”
“Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. Media NGOs advocated for the media sector to be included as a priority sector in the action plan and proposed changes to the Law on Television and Radio that fostered media ownership transparency,” reads the U.S. Department of State’s report.
Whereas previous annual reports criticized the Armenian authorities for systemic corruption, violence against journalists and the opposition, the suppression of freedom of speech and assembly, impunity of law-enforcement agencies and violations during elections, this time, the U.S. Department of State says, quoting international observers, that Armenia’s early parliamentary elections of December 2018 “were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms.”