The Armenian government’s recent amnesty of several hundred prisoners has more to do with politics than a desire to reform the country’s justice system, human-rights activists contend. Authorities in Yerevan concede the existence of problems, but assert change is coming.
Under an amnesty announced by President Serzh Sargsyan at the end of September, several hundred people were released from jail. Among them was opposition Armenian National Congress activist Tigran Arakelian, dubbed Armenia’s “last political prisoner.” Arakelian spent over two years in jail waiting for trial after being charged with allegedly breaking a police officer’s nose during a 2011 scuffle in Yerevan.
Human rights activists welcomed the releases as a way, however small, to take pressure off what they claim are Armenia’s overpopulated prisons. At the same time, they characterized the amnesty as “a political tool.” Authorities publically tied the amnesty to the 22nd anniversary of Armenia’s declaration of independence,
Three times over the past five years, Armenia has declared a prisoner-amnesty, measures proposed by President Serzh Sargsyan and approved by parliament, which is controlled by Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia.
Government critics saw the first two, in 2009 and 2011 as needed to reduce social tension connected to the post-election confrontation in 2008 in Yerevan. This time, as well, the government needs the “veil of a benefactor” to conceal popular disgruntlement over the way that justice is administered in Armenia, according to Avetik Ishkhanian, leader of the Armenian Helsinki Committee.
Among the recent cases that have called into question whether justice is blind, include the release of Tigran Khachatrian, son of Suren Khachatrian, a former powerful governor and Sargsyan ally, on charges of murder and illegal-weapons-ownership; the lack of suspects for violent attacks on activists opposing Armenia joining the Eurasian Union; and prison sentences of up to 2.5 years (later canceled by the amnesty) handed down to three young men convicted, on spurious evidence, of burning a hay-cart.
“There seems to be an attempt at playing human,” Ishkhanian commented, drily, referring to the amnesty.
Arman Musinian, a representative of the Armenian National Congress, claims the amnesty says nothing about the government’s “change of heart” about the way that justice is administered. Just the opposite; the amnesty is another example of the government, not the courts, being the final arbiter of justice. “This is simply the authorities’ message, saying ‘We can murder and stay unpunished, and you will go to prison for having done no wrong if we do not pardon you because the courts are subordinate to us,’” Musinian alleged.
Senior government officials declined to discuss the amnesty with EurasiaNet.org.
During the parliamentary debate about the measure, Justice Minister Hrair Tovmasian urged the opposition not “to politicize” the amnesty, adding that its purpose is “humanitarian” rather than “to fix judicial errors.”
Arman Danielian, director of the Civil Society Institute, a human rights organization, has a long list of such “judicial errors.”
Even after a large-scale amnesty, he argued, “in a year, the prisons get overpopulated again, because conviction is used for the smallest of crimes, posting bail is practically never used, alternative punishment is not applied, neither are pardons.”
Deputy Justice Minister Grigor Muradian, who is overseeing reforms of the justice system, claims change is in the works. A large-scale, four-year reform program, launched in 2012, will include the adoption of a completely new Criminal Code, offender rehabilitation projects, and the new practice of suspended sentences. The package, if fully implemented, will result in “a truly fair justice system, of an absolutely different quality than now,” Muradian asserted.
The problem, he said, is that no one believes this makeover will be implemented. Indeed, some human-rights activists scoffed that they’ve heard such promises before.
“There is almost 80-percent distrust among people toward the justice system, and it is rather challenging to implement a program when it is not trusted, or is believed to be doomed,” Muradian said in an interview with EurasiaNet.org.
There is ample reason for skepticism when it comes to the courts, Ishkhanian said, pointing out that since 1991 Armenia has carried out multiple rounds of judicial reform. But the reforms have routinely failed, Ishkhanian added, because “judges are appointed and removed by the … president, implying direct subordination to one person, while corruption remains the decisive factor” in rulings.
For all of the government’s promised reforms, they do not address a larger issue, asserted Danielian, the civil society activist. “The mentality we have inherited from Soviet times still exists,” he said. “[Judges] cannot imagine that when dealing with non-dangerous crimes, they can apply nominal sentences, fines. All of it is now provided for by law; however, it is never applied in practice.”
“Changing the legislation means little, because the implementers [of the law] do not change,” Danielian continued.
Meanwhile, some beneficiaries of a presidential amnesty don’t necessarily feel that the government’s action was “humanitarian.”
“I do not accept their amnesty. Who is pardoning me? The kind grandpa who acquits a murderer?” scoffed Arakelian. He was referring to 59-year-old President Sargsyan and the decision to release of Tigran Khachatrian from prison.
“It is me who has to yet pardon them,” Arakelian said
Deputy Justice Minister Muradian declined to address the September 21 amnesty, but does not deny that harmful traditions challenge Armenia’s justice system. “We do have traditions that need to be broken and overcome; changing the public perception of these [traditions] may take decades,” he said. “Proper” reforms can speed up the process, he went on.
Government critics are keeping their expectations low. Said Musinian; “Arakelian is free now, but the fight against injustice is going to be fiercer than before.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.