c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces continued to torture or otherwise abuse individuals in their custody. According to human rights lawyers, while the criminal code defines and criminalizes torture, it does not criminalize other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The first conviction in a torture case since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code occurred on December 28. Two policemen were found guilty of committing torture in 2019 and sentenced to seven years in prison.
With the disbanding of the Special Investigative Service (SIS), the investigation of torture cases was redistributed. According to lawyers involved in such cases, the cases were under investigation by the National Security Service (NSS), Investigative Committee, and the newly created Anticorruption Committee. Civil society criticized this redistribution, demanding the creation of a specialized, independent unit to tackle torture cases.
There were credible reports that ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces abused detainees held in connection with the conflict in late 2020 (see section 1.g. and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan).
Human rights activists asserted that lack of accountability for old and new instances of law enforcement abuse continued to contribute to the persistence of the problem. Observers contended that the failure of authorities to prosecute past cases was linked to the absence of change in the composition of the justice system since the 2018 political transition, other than at the top leadership level. Human rights lawyers also noted multiple cases where those responsible for abuse were later promoted, including after the 2018 revolution. According to the government, the majority of criminal cases into police use of disproportionate force against protesters during the largely peaceful protests of 2018 were dropped due to the failure of law enforcement bodies to identify the perpetrators. The trial of former deputy police chief, Levon Yeranosyan, for abuse of authority during the 2018 protests continued.
On May 25, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published a report on its most recent periodic visit to the country in December 2019. The CPT noted that the great majority of the persons interviewed by its delegation who were or had recently been in police custody said they had been treated appropriately.
On June 3, the Helsinki Association for Human Rights reported that on May 30, Vanadzor police abused Samvel Hasanyan and two other suspects upon arrest on suspicion of burglarizing an apartment. The beatings reportedly continued at the Vanadzor police station. Hasanyan’s lawyer from the human rights association, Arayik Papikyan, said numerous officers, some in civilian clothing, participated in the abuse. Papikyan published photographs of Hasanyan with numerous abrasions and bruises on his face, ears, head, arms, and body. The investigators in the case alleged that Hasanyan had sustained the injuries when being taken out of the car and being pushed to lie on the ground. According to Papikyan, the Vanadzor trial court authorized Hasanyan’s pretrial detention based only on police testimony regarding his alleged role in abetting a theft in an apartment. The SIS opened an investigation into the torture allegations on charges of abusing authority but dropped it two months later. According to the government, the preliminary investigation did not find sufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the relevant police officers had used violence against the three individuals. According to Papikyan, Hasanyan refused to testify to the SIS concerning the abuse due to fear of retaliation in connection with the criminal case in which he was a suspect. The lawyer also noted that there was no video recording of the day’s events in Vanadzor’s Taron district police station, a problem he described as chronic.
During the year the trial of three police officers from Yerevan’s Nor Nork District continued on charges of torture for the September 2020 abuse of weight-lifting champion Armen Ghazaryan and another citizen. Ghazaryan asserted that officers had kidnapped him after he tried to intervene when plainclothes police were apprehending a person over a personal dispute. Ghazaryan stated he was taken to a police station, where he was beaten by a group of officers and subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment. After Ghazaryan reported the abuse, employees of the Nor Nork police department reportedly pressured him to recant his testimony, threatening to frame him if he did not. In September 2020 the SIS launched a criminal case and arrested three officers on torture charges and the department chief on charges of abuse of authority for trying to interfere with an internal investigation. While the charges against the department chief were later dropped, citing his repentance, the case against the three officers, who remained in pretrial detention, was sent to court and continued at year’s end.
There were continued reports of abuse in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. Criminal justice bodies continued to rely on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations, were insufficient. While human rights lawyers claimed that the installation of video cameras in police stations had not been effective in safeguarding against abuse, pointing to the absence of video evidence in several torture cases that they monitored, officials said that existing safeguards precluded individual police stations from manipulating or deleting centrally collected video data. According to official data, video recording systems were installed in interrogation rooms of 21 police subdivisions, and 70 video monitoring systems were installed at the exits and entrances of 20 regional subdivisions, all of which were connected to the main departmental network.
There was no progress in the investigation of the 2019 death of Edgar Tsatinyan, who died in a hospital after having been transferred from Yerevan’s Nor Nork police department, where he had been in custody. Tsatinyan died of a drug overdose after swallowing three grams of methamphetamine, with which police reportedly intended to frame him after he refused to confess to a murder. In July 2020 the SIS dropped the investigation into Tsatinyan’s death. In December 2020 a Yerevan trial court rejected the appeal by the lawyer representing Tsatinyan’s family to reopen the case. The lawyer, citing numerous procedural violations in the investigation, subsequently submitted an appeal on January 14 to the Court of Appeals that was rejected on April 25.
On July 13, lawyers for the Helsinki Association for Human Rights announced that the SIS had dropped torture charges against the commander of the Yerevan Police Department Escort Battalion, Armen Ghazaryan, for his alleged role in the 2017 police beatings of four members of the armed group Sasna Tsrer while they were in custody on court premises. The defendants suffered cuts and bruises on their faces, heads, abdomens, backs, and legs in the beatings. The lawyers said the SIS dropped the charges due to contradictory data and its inability to give an “external criminal assessment of the actions of the police officers,” which appeared to mean that SIS found no evidence besides that provided by the victims. The Helsinki Association strongly condemned the prosecutor’s office, the SIS, and other law enforcement agencies, demanding they act to end violence and torture by police and the long-standing practice of covering up such cases.
The CPT noted problems regarding voluntary consent to hospitalization by a number of legally competent patients who may not have signed consent forms voluntarily. At the Armash psychiatric health center, the CPT was told that since it “would be a hassle” to apply to a court for authorization for involuntary hospitalization, persons who brought in a family member for treatment were told they had to coerce that person to sign a voluntary consent form to receive treatment. Once a patient signs the form, there is no way to apply to a court to reverse the involuntary hospitalization. The CPT also reported that patients subsequently were not allowed to go outside to exercise or depart the hospital.
There were no reports regarding the scale of military hazing in the army and whether it constituted torture. According to a 2020 report produced by the NGO Peace Dialogue, the lack of legal clarity concerning the functions and powers of military police as well as a lack of civilian oversight mechanisms made it possible for military police to employ torture and other forms of mistreatment against both witnesses and suspects in criminal cases. There were anecdotal reports during the year that military police abused servicemen.
In September 2020 Syunik regional trial court judge Gnel Gasparyan, in an unprecedented decision, ruled in the case of Artur Hakobyan that investigators had failed to carry out a proper investigation into Hakobyan’s torture claims. The judge ruled that investigators should undertake a psychological assessment of the victim that adhered to provisions in the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol. Eight months after this ruling, investigators commissioned the required psychological assessment, which was underway at year’s end. In 2015 Hakobyan had been released from the army early due to a mental disorder. According to his family and lawyer, Hakobyan was in good mental health before joining the army but experienced deep psychological trauma as a result of torture and abuse. In 2019 the Court of Cassation recognized there had been a violation of Hakobyan’s right to freedom from torture, but up to the September 2020 court decision, the case had been stalled due to continuing appeals and counterappeals.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. To combat torture, during the year the government held targeted training sessions for judges, prosecutors, investigators, military command staff, military police, police, and prison staff.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
While the prison population decreased due to improvements in early release procedures and the release of some prisoners under COVID-19 prevention measures, conditions in some prisons were harsh and marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and predation by hierarchical criminal structures. New criminal and administrative procedure codes, adopted on May 5 and June 30, respectively, provide for alternatives to imprisonment for certain crimes; both codes were scheduled to enter into force in July 2022. The government announced on October 28 that Kosh and Hrazdan prisons would close on January 1, 2022, allowing the government to reallocate resources. According to Justice Minister Andreasyan, as of October the prison system had the capacity to house 5,346 inmates but held just 2,113.
Physical Conditions: According to the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, prison renovations underway since 2019 had not resulted in major improvements for inmates. Prison monitors, however, no longer considered prison conditions to be life threatening, noting that with the dramatic decrease in inmate numbers the worst cells were no longer in use. Conditions in Nubarashen Prison, one of the country’s 12 penitentiaries, in some cases were harsh, although improvements to pipework reportedly eliminated the sewage stench from the prison. Human rights observers and the PMG also continued to express concern regarding the physical conditions of Armavir Penitentiary, which did not have an air ventilation or cooling system, which allowed recorded cell temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit in past summers. The heat affected inmates as well as the prison staff. On August 2, the human rights defender’s (ombudsperson’s) office issued a statement on the degrading conditions of defendants’ confinement in court buildings in the Shirak and Aragatsotn regions. The statement identified unsanitary conditions, open and inaccessible toilets, lack of heat and lighting, and lack of furniture in some cells. According to the ombudsperson and other reports, these problems also occurred in other courthouses throughout the country.
On August 19, the ombudsperson stated that conditions in the coronavirus department of the “hospital of convicts” penitentiary were inhuman and degraded human dignity. According to the statement, wards were dilapidated, unsanitary, and damaged by mold and decay.
According to the ombudsperson and the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates and the lack of a systemic approach to their prevention continued to be a problem. Prison deaths totaled 13 in the year. This number exceeded those in 2020 due to illness but remained lower than in prior years. Nine deaths were linked to illness, including four from COVID-19; three committed suicide; and one was murdered. An investigation of the latter was underway at year’s end. The government and NGOs did not attribute any of the 2020 or 2021 prison deaths to physical conditions.
Observers continued to note the need for better psychological services in prisons. According to the PMG, there was a shortage of psychologists on staff and hundreds of inmates in need of care. According to research published by the PMG in April 2020, the large number of patients per psychologist, overwhelming amounts of paperwork, and inappropriate working conditions as well as the ambiguous role of prison psychologists contributed to the failure of psychological services and led to burnout among the few existing specialists. In 2020 the ombudsperson criticized the practice of punishing inmates who self-mutilated instead of providing them with appropriate medical and psychological care. The government implemented programs to improve psychological services and increase staff, which together with improved physical conditions and a reduction in the number of inmates, contributed to a decrease in the number of cases of self-mutilation during the year.
The government reiterated its zero-tolerance policy towards corruption in prisons and expressed its determination to root out the organized hierarchical criminal structure dominating prison life, in which select inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy controlled the inmate population and prison life. According to the government, from January 1 to October 1, authorities investigated 19 criminal cases connected to the prison criminal subculture, of which four were sent to court with indictments, one was suspended, five were terminated, and nine remained under investigation. As of October 1, courts were examining six prison-related criminal cases against 25 individuals, with no convictions yet in place. According to observers it was not clear whether the government’s efforts had resulted in changes to the hierarchical system or had simply driven the problem underground.
Observers noted some progress fighting systemic corruption and said that prison administrations did not participate in corruption schemes, in part due to high-profile prosecutions of prison administration heads. Some observers reported that prisoners were no longer forced to contribute to a general pool of money supervised by watchers and that prisoners no longer appeared to be forced to participate in gambling. Other observers noted, however, that family members of incarcerated individuals reported having to pay representatives of prison hierarchies located outside of penitentiaries to ensure the safety of individuals in prison.
Experts assessed that corruption was likely to continue as long as the criminal subculture continued to exist. In its May 25 report, the CPT noted that its delegation received no credible allegations of recent physical mistreatment by staff in the six penitentiary establishments visited. From its observations, the CPT concluded, however, that interprisoner violence, intimidation, and extortion remained a problem in most of the prisons visited and was clearly related to the persistent influence of informal prisoner hierarchies.
In August 2020 the SIS reported the arrest of former Nubarashen Penitentiary chief Samvel Mkrtchyan for his role in arranging and covering up the February 2020 attack on inmate Vahagn Abgaryan. Mkrtchyan was released in September 2020 after a trial court refused to satisfy the SIS motion for pretrial detention. Mkrtchyan was charged with fraud and abuse of power for the February 2020 beating of Abgaryan (reportedly a member of the criminal hierarchical system) by other inmates. To hide the circumstances of the attack, which according to earlier official reports was instigated by orders from “criminal authorities” from abroad, Mkrtchyan instructed employees to report that Abgaryan had slipped exiting the bathroom. Other penitentiary employees were also arrested in the case. According to the government, the criminal case against penitentiary staff Hovik Aleksanyan and Zohrab Petrosyan was dropped in September 2020 due to their remorse, and the criminal case against Samvel Mkrtchyan was dropped in November on the grounds of an unspecified “change in the situation.”
In its May 25 report, the CPT noted the reform underway of the prison health-care service and the establishment of a Penitentiary Medicine Center, a public noncommercial organization for providing health care in prisons, but expressed concern that inmates still complained of a lack of access to specialized care. Observers noted that the number of surgeries and other specialized care permitted under the state order was limited. Most prisons lacked accommodations for inmates with disabilities.
According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) individuals continued to experience the worst prison conditions. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned abusive treatment and held LGBTQI+ individuals in segregated cells in significantly worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual men or those assumed to be homosexual, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape as well as those who refused to live by the “unwritten prison rules” were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating tasks, such as cleaning toilets, picking up trash for other prisoners, and providing sexual services. Food and cutlery for these inmates were kept separate, and they had a separate laundry machine and a separate solitary confinement cell.
On March 4, the NGO Center for Legal Initiatives issued a report, Issues of LGBT Prisoners of Armenia. The report specified that no state programs, strategies, or reports (including the 2020-22 National Strategy on the Protection of Human Rights and the 2019-23 Penitentiary and Probation Strategy mentioned the human rights of imprisoned LGBTQI+ persons or the need to improve their detention conditions. The report found that discrimination against and segregation of imprisoned LGBTQI+ persons was a direct consequence of the prison criminal subculture but was not recognized as such by government policy papers. Since initiatives to eradicate the criminal subculture did not consider the special vulnerability of LGBTQI+ persons, the report concluded the initiatives could have a further negative effect on LGBTQI+ individuals. According to the PMG, inmates entering the prison system were not screened for vulnerabilities such as sexual orientation, psychological problems, or other characteristics that could make their inclusion in the general prison population dangerous.
Observers reported significant improvements during the year in the early release and release on parole of inmates. Despite the progress, some experts noted that some prisoners were disadvantaged by the point system used to determine eligibility for release, since it failed to take into account factors not related to the inmate (for example, points were granted for employment or participation in an education program, which were not always available or were not available in all prisons). In its May 25 report, the CPT likewise noted that the lack of work opportunities for inmates meant that most of them could not qualify for early release. The CPT stated its concern that, as had been the case during its 2015 visit, none of the prisons visited offered anything remotely resembling a regime of organized constructive out-of-cell activities. In addition, there was no individual risk and needs assessment, no individual sentence planning (setting forth appropriate work, education, or other activities or noting any medical or psychological care that may be needed), and hardly any efforts to prepare prisoners for release.
According to the Ministry of Justice, an improved food program had a positive effect on the overall maintenance of order in prisons as well as a positive impact on the families of inmates, who no longer had to provide food. There were anecdotal reports concerning a deterioration in the quality of the food in the latter part of the year, with a few prisoners reportedly refusing to consume it. A PMG report on the food in late 2020, however, indicated that in private conversations, prisoners assessed the food positively and were generally satisfied with it.
Administration: Authorities did not conduct prompt investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment.
Outside the periods when there were COVID-19 restrictions, no access problems were reported.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted domestic and international human rights groups, including the CPT, to monitor prison and detention center conditions, and they did so regularly. Authorities allowed monitors to speak privately with prisoners and permitted the ICRC to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers. Authorities, however, limited independent monitoring by domestic groups. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny PMG monitors access to those individuals in whose cases the investigation body had put a restriction on communication. The PMG was also unable to monitor the conditions of confinement for those individuals. The PMG asserted the restriction was arbitrary and that the investigation body’s decision should not apply to the PMG. In November 2020 the PMG criticized the Ministry of Justice for the March 2020 adoption of a decree regulating PMG activities that contradicted its prior agreements with authorities. According to a PMG statement, the decree added further restrictions to their activities, such as a requirement to obtain permission from the prison administration before visits during nonworking hours. The decree also significantly raised the experience and qualification requirements for PMG members, all of whom performed their work pro bono. The PMG expressed concern that the new criteria could result in the inability of the group to attract new members, decreasing its ability to monitor prisons.
On August 5, human rights reporter Zhanna Alexanyan reported that the prison administration had obstructed her meeting with Karen Hovhannisyan, a pretrial detainee in Armavir Penitentiary, forcing her to meet her client in a bathroom foyer. Hovhannisyan was arrested in 2018 on charges of murder that he denied. While he entered prison without health problems, when Alexanyan met him, he was in a wheelchair and had numerous health problems that Hohannisyan attributed to beatings and torture by police and prison staff as well as inappropriate medical care. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the special investigative service launched a criminal case on August 20 on charges of torture concerning a 2019 incident when six security staff of Nubarashen prison, where Hovhannisyan was being held at the time, beat him to force him to end a hunger strike. On October 10, the case was forwarded to the NSS for further investigation and was underway at year’s end.
Improvements: Observers noted the reduction of the prison population and the decrease in corruption as improvements during the year. According to observers, the decrease of the prison population improved visitor access. According to the Ministry of Justice, ramps were built in the Central Prison hospital and Armavir and Hrazdan prisons for persons with disabilities, and special accommodations were made in the Central Prison hospital to enable their use of showers and bathrooms. To accommodate inmates with disabilities, toilets with seats were installed in at least one bathroom in each penitentiary, and in Hrazdan Penitentiary special equipment was installed in the bathing room.