Tag Archives: Human Rights Defender

Incremental Progress: Reforming Prisons

Armenia’s prisons are completely overwhelmed. Through the mix of post-soviet views on being tough on crime and the fact that Armenia is a developing country has caused the prisons system to be both overused and under-resourced for the job.

On June 19, Manvel Hazroyan committed suicide at Nubarashen prison, a notoriously overcrowded prison. The 22-year old was serving a sentence of life in prison for a murder occurred during his military service. The Human Rights Ombudsman made a statement of how Hazroyan’s suicide is a reminder of the significant problems within the system, including the completely insufficient one psychologist per 100 prisoners.  While Hazroyan would be eligible for parole after 20 years, other life-termers have not received parole even after serving the 20 years, according to the Armenian Program of Innocence NGO.

Clergyman Rev. Gevorg Hovannisian, recently spoke with all 100 prisoners serving life sentences, and promotes giving convicts an opportunity for repentance and correction. Hovannisian emphasized how each story is unique and each prisoner should be considered uniquely. He even took on the role of developmental psychologist to push for a change in the law that blocks a life sentence for those under the age of 21. His emphasis on rehabilitation is commendable, but there is no response to the question of how Armenia will pay for the rehabilitation programs.

Fortunately, Armenia has agreed to a European-pushed prison reform project. The relatively cheap €300,000 project will decrease overpopulation, promote probationary sentences, and bring the penitentiary system in compliance with European and international laws and treaties.

Ideally, these reforms will help reform some of the prison culture that makes physical abuse a far-too-common occurrence. With less crowding and modern facilities, it’s possible that a higher level of professional will be expected from the prison guards.

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Human Rights Reports, get Them while they’re Hot

Recently, there has been the release of two important human rights reports: The Human Rights Defender’s report on the presidential election and Civil Society Institute (CSI), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) joint report on general human rights in Armenia.

The Human Rights Defender’s report (press release, full report) covers the election from the beginning through post-election activities. It’s not the easiest read, nor does the Defender give recommendations, making this report a bit frustrating. It’s probably best to think of this as very well researched human rights journalism. The conclusion of the report is similar to OSCE/ODIHR’s hesitant support of the election with the Defender saying that “[t]he elections were freer than before, but many people do not believe were fair.”

The CSI/NHC/FIDH report (press release, full report) is a mid-term report based on how Armenia has been doing since 2010, when Armenia was reviewed by the Universal Periodic Review process. This report is not about the election, and instead it covers assorted major human rights issues: political persecution, torture and ill-treatment, judicial independence, and juvenile rights. They talk about the change to the criminal code (which should stop Armenia from getting regularly fined by the European Court of Human Rights), but there is no mention of the government rejecting the draft domestic violence bill. I can’t wait to hear how the government is going to defend that one in front of CEDAW or another international review.

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Hopefully the Last Monolithic Post on the Presidential Election

I just got internet at home, so my posting should be a little more regular from now on. This also means I won’t ever need to have a ginormous post like this one again.

Student Protests

Today was the third day of the students protesting, and it’s getting tough for them. School administrators, other students and the police have aligned against the protesters and are stopping them from spreading their message at the school. Hetq’s reporter overhears some of the police criticizing the protestors as not true Armenians and having “alien” values. In an even stronger reminder of last year’s pro-diversity march, the reporter notes that the protestors are a mix of genders while the opposing students are all male. (more photos)

One political commenter supports the general protests but not the student protests because the student protests have nothing “to do with education.” Political education and engagement may not be taught in textbooks, but it’s hard to say those aren’t connected with education.

I work in the old Yerevan State University black building, and yesterday I saw a number of orange sheets of paper with “Բարև” (“Hello”) written on them, referring to the #barevolution theme. They were all gone by this morning.

Other Protests

Yesterday, Hovannisian went out to the regions to do another round of protests while giving the yerevantci a rest. Amusingly, the police blocked the road as the government regularly asks them to do to stop people from assembling. The problem is that they blocked the road to Yerevan, not from it. The government is not used to an opponent that willingly leaves the center of power because they don’t think of regions as a source of power except during an election.

Yesterday, people in Yerevan protested in front of the embassies of countries that have congratulated the President.

The protest in front of the Glendale consulate office gathered around 100 residents. The organizer said that the protest will be repeated every Sunday until Sargsyan gives up power.

Are you Down with the System? (terrible pun, I know)

One amusing episode of this election conflict is Serj Tankian’s (from System of a Down) open letter exchange with Serzh Sargsyan. Yesterday, Serj wrote Serzh a letter “congratulating” him on his victory. My favorite line: “That’s quite funny isn’t it? That you, the President of Armenia are not really sure, deep inside, whether you are the true chosen leader of your people or not.”

Amazingly, Serzh responded later that day! Here is the President who has kept quiet during all of these protests officially write a response to a US rock star. While the letter’s terrible English is laughable, the real significance is that the President was willing to communicate and explain himself with a Diasporan but not to his own people.

Serj wrote a second letter where he points out that the President didn’t answer any of his questions. Amusingly and confusingly, one of Sargsyan’s spokespeople said that Serzh “agrees with Tankian on the overwhelming majority of the questions raised.”

What Comes Next

Tomorrow, Raffi gets back into Yerevan and will be hosting another rally. The bigger news is the rally on March 1st, the anniversary of the use of force against protesters after the last election that resulted in (officially) ten deaths. I’ve heard from people with family in the military that the real number is around 30, but I obviously can’t prove that. The ANC typically has a March 1 rally, but as Heritage got the permit first, ANC is cancelling its protest and instead telling people to join with Raffi at Myasnikyan square.

The National Assembly will discuss the “consequences of this post-election situation and put forward proposals to ease this tension.” Who knows what that means and what the Republicans (who have a majority in the National Assembly) will allow or push through.

Assorted links (Enjoy!)

  • Mayors who “failed” the Republican party by having Raffi win in their areas are resigning. The obvious rumor is that they’re being forced out. Because of the trend of resignations only in areas where Sargsyan lost, there’s rumors that the Sargsyan is rejecting one mayor’s resignation to break the trend of resigning mayors. (Armavir is happy their mayor resigned, wishing it happened sooner.). Today, Sargsyan rejected the resignation, putting him back in power, to the annoyance of many of the citizens.
  • Prosperous Armenia’s position is interesting. Their vague statement  shows that they don’t want to join the opposition, but then aren’t going to blindly support the government. Perhaps Prosperous will try to use the opposition as a bargaining chip to extract more power from the government? Even if they might slightly prefer the opposition to the Republicans, they might be worried about becoming the de facto 3rd party rather than the de facto 2nd party in Armenian politics. “Hey look, we’re still relevant!”
  • The Human Rights Defender is pushing the police to releasing the information regarding the electoral fraud claims they rejected.
  • Stunningly, the police are charging someone with election fraud. It’s only the head of a village and not anyone of importance, but something is better than nothing (remembering that the police literally investigated and charged no one with any type of electoral fraud in last year’s parliamentary election).
  • Amusingly, Azerbaijan is highly critical of Turkey congratulating the President for his reelection.
  • A great in-depth article on the difference between Raffi’s goals and the popular movement.
  • Ianyan magazine has two great articles about the election.
  • 19 NGOs say the election “had no precedent[] in terms of public distrust” and demand a publication of the signed voter list. Considering that the Constitutional Court rejected this demand last year, it’s not likely anything is going to happen this time.
  • Raffi met with the Russian ambassador yesterday. While Raffi is often painted as a solidly pro-west candidate, there are a number of factors that make that not quite so, which I hope to get to in another blog post.

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Domestic Violence Law is One Step Closer to Completion

Yesterday, the Human Rights Ombudsman delivered his recommendations to Parliament on the draft Domestic Violence Law. I don’t have a list of all the recommendations, but I know my work made a substantial impact on the recommendations provided. For instance, the “24 hour hotline” recommendation the article mentions was based on the draft law simply saying “a hotline” without giving any further details. Our worry was that the hotline would run only during working hours and thus be useless to victims at night when they are more likely to be abused by a spouse coming home from work.

Go Armenia!

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Elections: Final Statement

This post is the conclusion of this, this, and this post.

This is the final post on the May 6 National Assembly Elections. The net result is that the predicted storm of fury, criticism and calls for a do-over never came. Don’t get me wrong, the opposition parties still raise the issue of election rigging, but there haven’t been protests in the streets like after the 2008 presidential election. The people have accepted the results for better or for worse.

There is no doubt in my mind that this election is the best election Armenia has had in terms of legality and legitimacy. The fact that this more legitimate election changed very little in the National Assembly sticks a feather in the Republican’s cap: they can win through rampant vote stuffing and thuggery as well as through the less awful gift giving and vote buying.

My viewpoint above is not universal. There are some international groups that think that “voters showed even less confidence in the election process [than in previous elections]” like the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. Thankfully, I do have some heavy weights on my side including the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Armenia.

Today, the Human Rights Ombudsman releases his report on the elections. The one sentence summary is that the elections were pretty good. There were hundreds of complaints of violations but many of the complaints were minor (e.g. the ballot boxes were not at least 1 meter apart from each other), especially compared to the last election.

The biggest concern that’s highlighted in the report is that while the Armenian people were willing to call in cases of violations, the police were simply not willing to investigate the cases. In complaint after complaint, the police say that they investigated and were not able to verify the complaint and thus dismissed it. Supposedly, the police interview all witnesses before determining there is a lack of evidence. However, my friend and Birthright Armenia alum Greg Bilazarian not only reported possible fraud, but recorded it and published it through the well known and respected CivilNet. He contacted the police at 6:45pm; no one came even though the election was still ongoing. Eventually he got a letter from the police basically saying “nobody saw anything.” Somehow, the police were able to come to this investigatory conclusion even though they never even attempted to interview Greg, the main witness to the fraud!

Undoubtedly, there are also concerns listed about the Central Election Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office, but possible failings of these institutes are masked by the failings of the police. The failing of the police to properly investigate the complaints, whether from ineptitude or political corruption, stunts whatever faith the people can have in the police. The few cases where the police themselves pressure complainants to drop their complaint doesn’t help (see pages 14-15 of the report). This lack of faith has massive negative ripple effects throughout society, especially as the police are being given new responsibilities to deal with new challenges (e.g. the domestic violence law).

Addendum: It turns out the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights released their report on the same day. It’s available here. Very briefly, they comment on but avoid discussing the irregularities and instead provide technical advise for the next election.

Addendum 2: I want to be clear that there were still huge amounts of corruption occurring during the election, predominantly in the form of vote buying. My above analysis isn’t about making a holistic evaluation as to whether the election truly represents the will of the people, but whether the election procedure was followed well. Both election reports focus on the technicals of the election (the OSCE on the direct functioning of the election, the Ombudsman’s on the number, type and institutional responses to the individual complaints received), and I limit my analysis to that sphere.

Voting stamp

The stamp one gets in their passport to stop one from voting again.

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