Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister elected by the parliament heads the government; the president, also elected by the parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. In December 9 snap parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan from the Civil Contract party, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament. According to the December 10 preliminary assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that should be preserved through further election reforms.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Nikol Pashinyan was initially elected by parliament on May 8 following largely peaceful nationwide protests throughout the country in April and May, called the “velvet revolution.” 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.
Human rights issues included torture; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; police violence against journalists; physical interference by security forces with freedom of assembly; restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats thereof targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; inhuman and degrading treatment of persons with disabilities in institutions, including children; and worst forms of child labor.
The new government took steps to investigate and punish abuse, especially at high levels of government and law enforcement. On July 3, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) pressed charges against some former high-ranking officials in connection with their alleged roles in post-election clashes in 2008, when eight civilians and two police officers were killed.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concerns that the government did not promptly and accurately report incidents of deaths in the army. According to independent (and separate) monitoring of noncombat deaths by the NGOs Peace Dialogue and Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor, there were 24 noncombat deaths reported during the first half of the year. In response to information requested by the NGO Peace Dialogue, the Ministry of Defense reported 31 such incidents for the same period. Human rights NGOs noted that, after years of rejection, the Ministry of Defense became more open following the May change in government in responding to requests for information on the number of deaths in the army. Nevertheless, discrepancies in the government and NGO numbers, partly due to different classification of what constituted military deaths by the Ministry of Defense and civil society, continued to contribute to the overall mistrust of official information.
In an illustrative example, on May 6, the Ministry of Defense reported the death of conscripted soldier Levon Torosyan from a gunshot wound in a military unit located in Tavush region. The 6th Garrison Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee classified the death as suicide and charged Torosyan’s fellow soldier, Valodya Hokhikyan, with insulting Torosyan; Hokhikyan pled guilty. Ruben Martirosyan, an expert from Peace Dialogue, which represented the victim’s family, observed Torosyan’s autopsy and noted the presence of a hemorrhage in his genital area and abrasions on both elbows, inflicted shortly before his death. According to Martirosyan, this and other evidence led him to conclude Torosyan was killed and that the official investigators were covering up the circumstances of the death through pressuring witnesses and falsifying evidence. On August 24, SIS launched a criminal investigation into Martirosyan’s allegations. According to Peace Dialogue, this 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. Both investigations were ongoing at year’s end.
On May 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan dismissed the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Movses Hakobyan. Many of the families of soldiers who died under noncombat conditions, who continued to demand investigation of the deaths, alleged that Hakobyan was instrumental in covering up such deaths. According to media reports, law enforcement bodies reopened investigations into some of the older noncombat death cases.
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. According to the government, in the period from July 3 until late fall, SIS launched several new criminal cases re-examining these events. The criminal cases entailed charges of overthrowing the constitutional order, abuse and exceeding official authority, torture, complicity in offering a bribe, official fraud, and falsification of evidence connected with the investigation of the 2008 post-election events. High profile suspects in those cases included former minister of defense Mikhail Harutyunyan, former deputy minister of defense Yuri Khachaturov, former chief of presidential staff Armen Gevorgyan, and former president Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan was charged on July 27 with Article 300.1 of the criminal code, overthrowing the constitutional order, in connection with the March 1 2008 protests. On August 13, the court of appeals released him from pretrial detention. After a Court of Cassation determination that presidential immunity did not apply to his charges, he was arrested again on December 7. The investigations into the cases were ongoing at year’s end.
Concluding a visit from September 15-20, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatovic noted the steps taken by the government to finally establish responsibility for the 10 deaths, but stressed 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.”
Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group, cochaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in Dushanbe. Recurrent shooting and shelling caused casualties and injuries among military and civilians. Following the April 2016 outbreak in violence, the sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities during that time. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces tortured or otherwise abused individuals in their custody. According to human rights lawyers, while the criminal code defines and criminalizes torture, the relevant provisions do not criminalize inhuman and degrading treatment. There were no convictions of officials who engaged in these practices, although there were several reports of investigations under these charges.
Police abuse of suspects during their arrest, detention, and interrogation remained a significant problem, especially during the largely peaceful “velvet revolution.” For example, on April 23, Hayk Hovhannisyan, a doctor and lecturer at Yerevan State Medical University, was beaten by police officers. According to Hovhannisyan’s account, he was trying to protect students from police violence, when five or six officers dragged him out of a taxi and kicked him in his face and body, resulting in head injuries, a concussion, and a broken cheekbone. Mistreatment occurred in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. According to observers, police used arrest as a form of punishment. Criminal justice bodies relied on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as access to a lawyer by those summoned to the police as witnesses, as well as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations, were insufficient.
According to government statistics, since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code, only two cases on charges of torture were sent to the courts.
Human rights lawyers and the ombudsman’s office recorded numerous instances of alleged violations of human rights of protestors, civilians, and journalists, including reports of excessive use of force and beatings by police officers, plainclothes officers, and gangs during the April protests. According to the Ministry of Health, 127 citizens sought medical assistance in the period from April 13-23.
According to official information, the Investigative Committee launched 25 criminal cases into violent incidents that occurred in the period from April 13 to 23. Six of the 25 cases were sent to the courts with charges against nine persons, including Andranik Isoyan, the assistant to former member of parliament (MP) Mihran Poghosyan. One case was suspended, and 14 were merged with other criminal cases. Investigation continued into four cases against 19 persons including the mayor and deputy mayor of Masis. The Masis mayor, Davit Hambardzumyan, was charged with organizing the mass disorders on April 22, when a gang of armed men wearing surgical masks attacked peaceful protesters with stones, batons, and tasers. Hambardzumyan also was charged with hooliganism for another violent incident involving firearms that occurred the same day.
In addition, the SIS investigated two criminal cases regarding violence against protestors during the April 13-23 protests. The investigation of the two cases that included 164 victims, of which 13 were journalists, was in progress at year’s end.
Two criminal cases against three police officers from Abovyan region Arsen Arzumanyan, head of Kotayk branch of police Koyayk regional administration and two police operatives, Areg Torosyan and Arsen Torosyan were sent to the courts on charges of obstructing journalists’ activities. Lieutenant-general Levon Yeranosyan, 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. Police conducted 22 internal investigations into police behavior during the April 13-23 protests.
On May 13, the SIS charged the commander of the Yerevan Police Department Escort Battalion, Armen Ghazaryan, with torture for his role in the June 2017 police beatings of four members of the armed group Sasna Tsrer during an altercation. The defendants suffered cuts and bruises on their faces, heads, abdomens, backs, and legs in the beatings. At year’s end the investigation continued.
According to a September 24 statement made by Protection of Rights without Borders, SIS suspended the case examining violence against protesters who were supporting the Sasna Tsrer takeover of the police station in Erebuni in 2016.
On March 21, the office of the ombudsman issued an ad hoc report on the situation in psychiatric institutions noting violations of human rights. Such violations included legal gaps in regulating compulsory treatment, expired medication and absence of alternative treatment options, inappropriate use of means of restraint, lack of specialized personnel, absence of mechanisms for urgent stationary psychiatric assistance, overcrowding, discrimination, inadequate housing and sanitary conditions, inadequate food, lack of exercise, and other problems. On April 23, Dainius Puras, the UN special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, issued a report on his fall 2017 visit to the country. According to the report, the country’s mental health system contained elements of outdated models and practices, including easy and frequent hospitalization of individuals with mental health conditions, overmedication, and long-term confinement for those “chronic patients.” The special rapporteur noted that in a number of the institutions, patients had been confined for long periods, sometimes for 10 to 15 years, not because they needed to be hospitalized but due to the lack of adequate care structures at the community level.
According to the prosecutor general’s office, in 2017 and the first nine months of 2018, 84 patients died in psychiatric institutions. In 80 cases, the causes of death were determined to be various diseases; criminal cases were not launched due to the absence of crimes. In three deaths, criminal cases were initiated on charges of inducing someone to commit suicide, two of which were later dropped due to the absence of a crime. The investigation of the third case was in progress.
The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) noted in a 2016 report on its visit to the country that a significant number of patients in two psychiatric clinics appeared to be deprived of their liberty. Although they had signed agreements of voluntary admission, the patients no longer wished to remain in the hospitals.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and systemic corruption; overcrowding was no longer a problem at the prison level, and was almost resolved at the cell level, but conditions in some cases were harsh and life threatening. Prisons generally lacked accommodations for inmates with disabilities.
Physical Conditions: According to observers, media reports and ad hoc reports of the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, during the year prison conditions continued to remain as described in the 2016 CPT report. The CPT noted material conditions of detention at Nubarashen Prison remained unacceptable. According to the PMG, detention conditions in some cells of the Nubarashen Prison constituted torture and degrading and inhuman treatment. According to the CPT, many cells were damp, affected by mold, poorly lit and ventilated, dirty, and infested with vermin. For most inmates, water was only available at certain hours. Inmates relied on their families for food, bedding, and hygiene items. According to the CPT, similar conditions were observed in other penitentiary establishments.
Human rights observers and the PMG expressed concern about the physical conditions of Armavir penitentiary, the country’s newest prison. The prison did not have an air ventilation or cooling system. PMG monitors who visited the prison on July 13 registered temperatures of 45 degree Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) inside cells, with no constant water supply. According to the PMG, the ventilation and cooling system was removed from the original construction plan due to lack of resources.
According to the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates was one of the most significant human rights problems in prison. In one illustrative case, the penitentiary service of the Ministry of Justice announced that, on August 11, Moldovan citizen Vasile Gruiya was found hanged from his belt in his cell in Armavir Prison. According to the penitentiary service, Gruiya, a detainee, had been aggressive since his admission on August 6 and had attempted self-mutilation. To stabilize him, his mother was allowed to see him and prison psychologists worked with him for three days. According to media reports, Gruiya’s family did not believe that he could have committed suicide, since he was informed that he would be released in a few days. Media also reported Gruiya’s mother claimed her son was killed by another detainee and that he told her he had received death threats. According to official information, the forensic examination of Gruiya’s body discovered numerous injuries inflicted shortly before his death with a blunt object. The criminal investigation into his death was in progress as of year’s end.
The Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG noted the need for better psychological services in prisons. According to statistics published by the PMG, from 2011 to 2017, there were 27 suicides in prison. In 2017, 607 cases of self-mutilation were registered compared with 879 in 2016. The most self-mutilation incidents in 2017 were registered in Nubarashen and Armavir prisons. According to the PMG, the prison administration did not appropriately investigate the cases and did not determine the culpability or negligence of prison staff. In 2017 the PMG made several requests to the Ministry of Justice to allow additional psychologists on its staff to enter prisons but was denied.
On May 3, the SIS announced it charged several employees of the Armavir Prison with torturing a convict, after prison staff had applied physical force to an inmate, but the case was dropped after law enforcement determined the physical force was legitimate.
According to human rights organizations, in addition to the poor physical condition of the facilities, an organized criminal structure dominated prison life. Prison officials reportedly delegated authority to select inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy and used them to control the inmate population.
Former inmates and many human rights observers raised the problem of systemic corruption and bribery in the penitentiaries. On June 29, a group of convicts addressed a letter to the prime minister, which asserted that corruption continued everywhere in the penitentiary system, with the exception of the Vardashen Prison, which was used primarily for foreigners and former government officials. The letter’s authors claimed that each cell paid bribes that ranged from 300,000 to 600,000 drams ($635 to $1,250) per month to the prison’s administration, local criminal authorities, and others.
There also were reports of medical negligence. In an illustrative example, on February 14, media outlets reported the December 2017 death of convicted prisoner Arega Avetisyan in the Abovyan Prison. Prior to her death the PMG had requested Avetisyan’s release based on health grounds. According to the PMG, Avetisyan suffered a stroke and was given care by another prisoner. After the request, Avetisyan underwent a medical examination that determined her medical condition did not necessitate her release. Authorities opened a criminal case on charges of medical negligence, which was ongoing by year’s end.
There was no progress in investigating the April 2017 death of convicted prisoner Hrachya Gevorgyan in the Armavir Penitentiary.
Health-care services in prisons remained understaffed and poorly equipped, and there were problems with access to specialist care including mental health care. There was also a serious shortage of medication.
According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, LGBTI individuals experienced the worst prison conditions. They were frequent targets of discrimination, violence, psychological and sexual abuse and were forced by other inmates to perform degrading labor. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned such treatment and held LGBTI individuals in segregated cells in significantly worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual males or those assumed to be homosexual, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, as well as those who refused to live by the “unwritten criminal prison rules” were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating jobs such as cleaning the toilets, picking up trash for other prisoners, and providing sexual services. The PMG reported a case in the Nubarashen Penitentiary in May when prison staff revealed an LGBTI inmate’s sexual identity to his parents, after which he became depressed and self-mutilated. Despite deteriorating health, he was not provided medical assistance for weeks, and was transferred to the prison hospital penitentiary only after the involvement of the PMG.
Administration: Authorities did not routinely conduct credible investigations nor take action in a meaningful manner to address problems involving the mistreatment of prisoners, disputes and violence between inmates, or widespread corruption.
Convicts and detainees did not always have reasonable access to visitors due to the lack of suitable space for visitations. Heads of prisons and detention facilities arbitrarily used their discretion to deny prisoners and detainees visitation, contact with families, or the ability to receive periodicals.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted domestic and international human rights groups, including the CPT, to monitor prison and detention center conditions, and they did so regularly. Authorities allowed monitors to speak privately with prisoners and permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers. In December 2017, the Minister of Health established a civil society group to carry out monitoring of psychiatric institutions.
There were limits, however, to domestic independent monitoring. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny PMG monitors access to those individuals in whose case the investigation body had put a restriction on communication. The PMG was also unable to check the conditions of confinement for those individuals. The PMG asserted that the restriction was arbitrary and that the investigation body’s decision could not apply to the PMG. There were also restrictions on the PMG’s ability to check food quality in the prisons.
Improvements: In May the parliament approved amendments to the penitentiary code, probation law, the criminal code, and the criminal procedural code to address gaps in the early release program. The amendments, which went into effect on June 23, abolished independent commissions formed to consider requests for early release, transferring their functions to the penitentiary and state probation services. Based on the advisory reports of the two institutions, the court makes the final recommendation on early release. On October 16, a Yerevan trial court made an unprecedented decision to release an inmate, who had been serving a life sentence since 1996, on a 10-year probation. On July 12, parliament adopted changes to the penitentiary code that doubled the number of short- and long-term visits for persons convicted of especially grave crimes and for those serving life sentences. The changes, which came into force on August 4, allowed six short-term and two long-term visits during the year.
During the year the Ministry of Justice Center for Legal Education and Rehabilitation Programs developed and approved, with international funding, an anger management training program for female and juvenile inmates of Abovyan prison. In addition, Abovyan inmates received training in English language, computer literacy, cooking, crochet and felting, therapeutic exercise/yoga, hairdressing, career planning, and entrepreneurship.
On November 1, a decree came into force that allowed inmates deprived of the opportunity to meet with their relatives due to distance or illness to have two 20-minute video calls per month.
On December 16, the government allocated 270 million drams ($556,000) to the Ministry of Justice for correctional facility renovations.