Zaruhi Mejlumyan

Prison Reform in Armenia: ‘The Butchers Continue to Operate without Punishment’

The Council of Europe has a special committee called the CPT (European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) that it periodically sends to its 47 member states to assess how detained persons are treated.

Places visited include prisons, juvenile detention centres, police stations, holding centres for immigration detainees, psychiatric hospitals, social care homes, etc.

After each visit, the CPT sends a confidential report containing its conclusions and recommendations to the state concerned.

Human rights organizations and defenders, both locally in Armenia and internationally, have been critical of the reports the CPT has been sending to the Armenian government, the first in 2002, describing them as carbon copies of previous reports with minor changes here and there.

During panel discussion that took place in Yerevan yesterday (at the initiative of the Partnership for an Open Society Foundation), Avetik Ishkhanyan, President of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, read excerpts of the CAT’s reports concerning its visits to Armenia in 2013 and 2014. (The reports can be accessed via http://www.cpt.coe.int/en/states/arm.htm)

Ishkhanyan noted that in almost all the CAT reports are replete with testimony from inmates in Armenian correctional facilities regarding physical and mental torture, beatings with chair legs and rubber truncheons, cases of suffocating inmates with plastic bags, crushing fingers and nails with pliers, and other examples of abuse.

All the reports have called on the Armenian government to take immediate steps at the highest level to ensure the implementation of the right of citizens to be free of torture and abuse, to conduct thorough investigations of all cases, and to hold the abusers accountable.

Davit Khachatryan, an expert in the field, cited the following from a decision that went against Turkey in a torture case: “If the state does not punish the torturer it becomes an accomplice.”

Mikayel Khachatryan, who represented Armenia’s Ministry of Justice at the discussion, said that a planned change to Armenia’s Criminal Code would bring it in line with the Convention against Torture. He told the audience that those guilty of torture would face 4-8 years in prison and that victims would be eligble to compensation by the state in the amount of 3 million AMD ($6260).

Artur Sakunts, who heads the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Civic Assembly, reminded those present of the following words of Armenian Chief of Police Vladimir Gasparyan – “Any policeman who extracts testimony by beating and thrashing is a butcher.”

Nevertheless, Sakunts pointed out that the ‘butchers’ continue to operate without punishment.

Human rights defender Arayik Chalyan became a victim of torture in the ‘Mataghis’ case well-known to the public. Chalyan was one of the three accused in the case.

Three 19 year-old soldiers were implicated in the murder of two other soldiers and were first taken to the Martakert military police office in Artsakh where they were kept for eight days. Then, without being formally charged, they were transferred to Yerevan and held by the Military Police for three months.

Chalyan told Hetq that he was detained for so long in order that all traces of beating would disappear before being sent to prison. Chalyan claimed that the ringleader of the beatings was Armen Hakobyan, who headed the investigative team and now serves as the chief of the Police Department’s Internal Security Department.

“They beat the soldier Razmik Sargsyan to such an extent, threatening him with sexual abuse, that he finally confessed. There are other similar cases known to the public. Take the case of Vahan Khalafyan, who dies while in the custody of the Charentsavan police headquarters. The abusers are now making their way up the ranks,” Chalyan told Hetq.

In December 2011, the CPT made an ad-hoc visit to Armenia to assess the steps taken by the Armenian authorities to implement long-standing recommendations made by the CPT, in particular those concerning the treatment of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment. The Committee’s delegation visited Yerevan-Kentron Prison and carried out a targeted visit to the unit for lifers and the disciplinary unit of Nubarashen Prison.

 In an official press release summing up its findings, the CPT said that the delegation received no recent allegations of deliberate physical ill-treatment of prisoners by staff in either of the prisons visited. In general, the delegation observed that the attitude of staff towards prisoners was quite correct.

“However, the poor material environment and impoverished regime at Kentron Prison made it unsuitable for lengthy periods of detention. As for the conditions of detention of life-sentenced prisoners held at Kentron, the CPT states that they could be considered as amounting to inhuman treatment. More generally, the Committee notes that virtually none of the recommendations made after previous visits as regards the detention of lifers have been implemented,” the press release reads.

The full CPT 2011 report can be accessed here.

The CPT adds that in their response, the Armenian authorities provided information on the various measures being taken to address the concerns raised by the Committee. 

However, Hetq has periodically followed the bills being introduced to the Armenian parliament regarding prison reforms.

For the past two years, such bills have yet to be voted on and remain in legislative limbo.