By Mher Yenokyan (Hetq's correspondent at Nubarashen Prison)
What to do with those sentenced to life in prison in Armenia?
It’s a taboo subject inherited from the previous government in Armenia. Few want to discuss it.
Before presenting the legal aspect of this appalling issue point by point, I’ll briefly write about the behavior of discrimination.
Since the former regime, as the current revelations show, was criminal in nature, it’s apparent that in regard to achieving justice that same criminal approach manifested. Numerous crimes, in which comparatively large interests clashed and you had the participation of those who, in one way or the other, were tied to the regime, were never fully investigated and solved. The reason is because the true culprits were representatives of the government or those with deep pockets and ties to the regime. Even if such people were imprisoned, they were soon released.
And we have the opposite scenario. If the injured party enjoyed the favors of the former regime, then what awaited the culprit wasn’t an appropriate punishment but rather revenge; extreme punishment. Oftentimes, so that one party would regard the case as closed and the injured party to feel satisfied, they would prosecute an innocent person who had neither money nor ties to the regime.
It was during the days of such “justice” that the number of those serving life sentences in Armenia, a nation of just three million with a low crime rate, exceeded 100 in 2010. It’s 95 today. The number’s dropping because some convicts are dying. None are being conditionally released. Only Soghomon Kocharyan was released due to health reasons.
For comparative purposes let me cite the following numbers from my course work. In Estonia, whose population is similar to Armenia, the number of lifers is 6. In Poland, with a population of 38 million, the number is 200.
Why is it that death penalty/life sentences were employed so much in Armenia when the country’s crime rate is so low? It’s simply because the former regime officials either wanted to boost the number of “solved” cases (quantity not quality), or else the courts had become extensions of the regime and tools so that those injured parties, in tight with the regime, could seek revenge.
For example, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Croatia and Slovenia have not only done away with the death penalty but have also abolished sentencing someone to life imprisonment. The main reason for banning the death penalty was that no judicial system is exempt from the possibility of committing errors. If a person is wrongly sentenced to death, and the sentence is carried out, that person is gone for good. By doing away with the death sentence, governments are creating working mechanisms to uncover and fix those judicial mistakes.
In Austria, Sweden, Bosnia and Germany, the courts cannot sentence anyone under the age of 21 to life imprisonment. In Finland, if a person was 21 or under when committing a crime and was later sentenced to life, that person is eligible for conditional release after 10 years, not 20. In Belgium, if a first- time offender is sentenced to life, that person is eligible for conditional release in ten years, and in some cases, twenty. Not all countries have set the minimum number of years a lifer must serve before becoming eligible for conditional release at 20. It’s 14 in England, 9 in Sweden, 10-15 in Finland, and 12 in Denmark.
Now for some solutions
- The orders given by former Armenian President Robert Kocharian on August 1, 2003 to sentence the 42 surviving death row convicts (now numbering 35) to life sentences was unconstitutional and illegal. First, the president had no right to set punishment since the constitution states that’s a function of the courts. Second, according to Article 23 of the Criminal Code in effect until August 1, 1961- “if the death penalty was replaced with imprisonment, it could have been imposed for more than fifteen years, but no more than twenty years.” But in one day, 42 sentenced to death were give life sentences.
This matter can be solved if Armenia’s Human Rights Defender or a group of MPs file a case with the Constitutional Court questioning the legality of Kocharian’s decision.
- In May 2011, after changes were made to the Criminal Code raising maximum sentences from15 to 20 years, the number of life sentences stabilized. In the seven years since the change, life sentences are rarely handed out. Such sentences have been handed out twice, while in the past, on a yearly basis, five death sentences were issued. The legislature approved this change by arguing that the courts felt that 15 years was a light sentence in many cases and that sentencing someone to life was too severe. Today, courts are handing out 16, 17 and even 20-year sentences. This law was clearly meant to improve the situation of those sentenced to life, including those sentenced to death in the past, and it must be made retroactive. In other words, the cases should have entered the courts and some of the sentences should have been reviewed. Life sentences should have been replaced with those in the 15-20-year range.
This issue can be resolved if the Armenian National Assembly passes a law clearly stating that the above 2011 change to the Criminal Code is to be applied retroactively in the case of those sentenced to life.
There are other cases to be sure. I am hopeful that the Armenian revolution of love and tolerance will also confront these important legal issues and that there will be no more talk about the plight of lifers in Armenia.