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.
Another prisoner, Artak Hakobyan, has written to Tert that he has been abused in prison. Late last year he sewed up his eyes and went on a hunger strike (this is a different prisoner that sewed his eyes shut than the one I wrote about earlier). In the letter, he says that he was brutally beaten after he uploaded a picture of his sewn-up eyes to the internet. And, when he demanded to be moved to a hospital for prisoners rather than the general population, the prison authorities demanded a bribe to do so.
A human rights evaluation group visited the Nubarashen prison and found lots of problems. Ignoring the common issues of insanitary conditions and overcrowding, the most surprising one to me was how families regularly need to bring in food and medicine for the prisoners.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has stepped in and wrote a letter to the President of the Court of Cassation to raise attention to alleged ill-treatment of seven prisoners. These prisoners are youth activists connected with the political opposition and were arrested on August 9, 2011. Because of the alleged police abuse these youth suffered and because of the political undertones, the Armenian National Congress has been organizing protests and have called for their release. The HRW letter details the evidence of the ill-treatment they are alleged to have suffered.
HRW is not trying to convince the Court of Cassation to be lenient or give them freedom, but to inquire why the prosecutor’s office did no investigation into the ill-treatment and to order such an investigation. We should hear the Court’s verdict tomorrow. To be realistic, if the Court of Cassation does not order an investigation, these victims will very likely win if they take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
As a point of clarification, when a human rights person is using the term ill-treatment, it often means torture and generally means cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. Both illegal under international law. The reason Human Rights Watch or other human rights people use the euphemism is because only a judge can determine if the alleged actions violate the law.
This report is unverified, so scale the level of doubt accordingly. Hetq is reporting on a letter written to them by prisoner Arman Davtyan, who says he will take his life if the letter is not published. In the letter, he says that prison officials broke his fingers, shocked him, and assaulted him, his wife and friends. All for the purpose of making him plead guilty. Because of the severity of these claims, the Department of Justice or the Human Rights Ombudsman must act immediately to investigate them.
To provide some context, this type of torture is becoming more and more uncommon in Armenia. In Armenia’s July 2012 review by the Human Rights Committee, in its concluding observations, it discussed issues of excessive pre-trial detention (Para. 19), overcrowding of prisons (Para. 20) and the absence of a genuine complaints mechanism if abuse occurs in detention (Para. 14), but never mentions a systemic problem of actual acts of torture. Admittedly, one issue the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office has fought against is the practice of police calling suspects into the police station and beating them until they confess.
Recently prisoner Hayk Galustyan went on a hunger strike and sewed shut his eyes. The details of his complaint aren’t listed, but his primary demand was simply to be transferred to a different penitentiary. He says the transfer was promised to him by the President.
Regardless of whether Galustyan is correct or not about the transfer, his case is obviously a matter that should be taken seriously. Instead Hrair Tovmasyan, the Minister of Justice, states that “Sewn up eyes or mouth is as usual for prisoners as earrings for girls. They have the holes.”
The Human Rights Defender’s Office Rapid Response Department visited Galustyan, who had ended his hunger strike and removed the stitching and had “no complaints about the penitentiary.” It’s almost certain he was being pressured as he still filed a complaint with the Ombudsman.
Prisons are severely overcrowded in Armenia with significant abuses of prisoners’ rights. There are a number of extensive articles on the subject, but here is a very brief news piece to act as a primer.
Update on Nov 4: Gagik Tsarukyan, the head of the Prosperous Armenia party, openly criticizes the Minister of Justice for his remarks.