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Vahe Sarukhanyan

Inmates at Vardashen Correctional Facility Declare Hunger Strike

Overcrowding, Parole Board Rejections, Top Their Demands Hetq speaks to Avetik Ishkhanyan, President of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, regarding the growing number of complaints lodged by inmates at the nation’s correctional facilities. Inmates at the Vardashen Correctional Facility say they’ll be staging a hunger strike starting on April 1. What are their demands? It’s a result of conditions at Armenia’s jails that has come about over the past three years. Due to overcrowding, prison conditions aren’t being properly monitored. This gives rise to all sorts of demeaning treatment and inhuman conditions. I can single out the Vardashen, Nubarashen and Erebuni facilities as the worst offenders. In Nubarashen, a 30 square meter cell intended for just eight inmates is now being used to house up to thirty. Even worse, the ventilation system there isn’t working. This results in a truly inhuman environment; in a word torturous. The same can be said for Vardashen. The question arises – why such overcrowding? Simply stated, the parole boards aren’t doing their job. They are rejecting all parole petitions across the board. This leads to overcrowding and a truly dangerous environment inside the jails. Just imagine the tension amongst inmates within those walls. Inmates at Vardashen will be protesting the stance of these parole boards. Another reason for the overcrowding is that the courts are sentencing everyone to jail time; there are no alternative sentences like community service, etc. Then too, most awaiting their day in court are being given pre-trial detention. If 70% of those being held in custody were released, conditions in the jails would improve overnight at Vardashen and Nubarashen. Is it only inmates at Vardashen who are complaining? What about the other jails? You’ll get complaints from all over – Sevan, Abovyan and Goris. Most of the complaints deal with the independent committees, rather than conditions at the jails or the inmates’ court cases. The parole boards appear to be handing down rejections without any rhyme or reason. They might parole a murderer and reject the petition of someone charges with a much lesser crime. For example, Sargis Hatspanyan was even a heavy sentence, 3.5 years. But is he really a danger to society or a repeat offender? I doubt it. His sentence is soon up but all his parole applications have been rejected out of hand. What is the demand of those sentenced to life imprisonment? In 2002, or was it 2003, they removed the so-called “bull-dog” cells at Nubarashen. That’s where the lifers are held. It was a change for the better. Those cells didn’t let in any sunlight. According to my information, they want to bring back those cells for the lifers. The prison administration will probably say it’s for security reasons. In the past, the prison allowed inmates to purchase computers with their own money. If I’m not mistaken, the prison confiscated the computers last year. I consider this to be cruel and unusual punishment for those lifers. As a legal rights defender, what do you expect from the Ministry of Justice? When the Justice Minister went to Vardashen, the inmates had hopes that some of their demands would be met. I cannot say to what extent their hopes have been realized.