Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group, cochaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Violence along the Line of Contact continued. Recurrent shooting and shelling caused casualties among military and civilians. Following the April 2016 outbreak in violence, the sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities during that time. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.
The number of noncombat deaths in the military reportedly decreased. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Peace Dialogue, there were 59 noncombat deaths during the year, compared with 162 in 2016. Peace Dialogue considered all noncombat deaths to be suspicious, although it did not specify its reason or reasons. In several cases, however, families of soldiers who died under noncombat conditions voiced distrust of official investigations, and their lawyers reported multiple procedural violations and a lack of time to review the case materials. On August 22, investigative online publication Hetq published an article describing many official obstacles the outlet and Peace Dialogue faced in obtaining statistics on the number of suicides in the army as well as specifics of the cases.
In one noncombat death case, the ECHR ruled in November 2016 that the state had violated the right to life in connection with the 2002 death of Private Suren Muradyan (stationed on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh) and ordered the government to pay 50,000 euros ($60,000) to the Muradyan family. While the government paid the fine, no actions were taken to prosecute those responsible for Muradyan’s death.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces regularly tortured or otherwise abused individuals in their custody. There were no known cases of prosecution of officials who engaged in these practices.
Police abuse of suspects during their arrest, detention, and interrogation remained a significant problem. According to human rights NGOs, most victims did not report abuses due to fear of retaliation. Mistreatment occurred in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. According to observers, police used arrest as a form of punishment. Criminal justice bodies relied on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, there were no sufficient procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as access to a lawyer by those summoned to the police as witnesses, as well as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations.
According to human rights observers, hardly any investigations into suspected police mistreatment led to criminal sanctions against law enforcement officers. Human rights lawyers pointed to biased judicial and investigatory practices in torture cases and to the practice of opening investigations of possible false accusations when a victim of torture reported abuse.
According to government statistics, since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code, no official had been convicted in such cases as of year’s end.
As of mid-December the authorities had not prosecuted any law enforcement officials for the reported cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of demonstrators, journalists, civic and political activists, and ordinary citizens during the political protests related to the July 2016 seizure by the armed group Sasna Tsrer of the Erebuni police compound.
On June 28, according to human rights lawyers, police beat four members of the armed group Sasna Tsrer during an altercation that ensued while they were awaiting resumption of their court hearing. The defendants suffered cuts and bruises on their faces, heads, abdomens, backs, and legs in the beatings. On June 30, the ombudsperson’s office released a statement calling on the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate the reports. While an investigation was opened, the officers were not suspended or put on leave and continued to handle the same prisoners during the trial.
According to an October 2016 submission by the Partnership for Open Society Initiative (POSI) to the UN Committee against Torture, the lack of independent civilian oversight over psychiatric institutions led to inadequate protection of the right of persons with mental and social disabilities. According to the submission, regulations did not provide safeguards to prevent use of physical restraints, which were used not only on a physician’s decision, but also as a punishment and a method to intimidate other patients.
The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) noted in a 2016 report on its visit to the country that a significant number of patients in two psychiatric clinics appeared to be de facto deprived of their liberty. Although they had signed agreements of voluntary admission, the patients no longer wished to remain in the hospitals. According to POSI’s submission, persons often underwent compulsory treatment because in practice patients’ consent was obtained under pressure and through threats by relatives and the staff of the medical institution.
According to human rights experts, deaths in psychiatric institutions were not properly investigated. The government reported 73 deaths in psychiatric institutions, most due to illness and one due to suicide in 2016-17. There were two investigations launched on charges of medical negligence (one was dropped due to absence of a crime and the other continued at year’s end) and one criminal case on charges of inducing suicide. The latter was also dropped.
Although there were no reliable statistics on the extent of abuse in the military services, substandard living conditions, corruption, and commanders’ lack of accountability contributed to mistreatment and injury of soldiers by their peers or superiors. According to the Ministry of Defense, soldiers often underreported criminal behavior and abuse. While military leaders recognized the problem and sought to overcome it, some observers maintained that certain military commanders regarded it, as well as violence towards conscripts in general, as an effective way to maintain discipline.
In January the Ministry of Defense Human Rights and Integrity Center opened a hotline that the public as well as current or former members of the military and their families could use to find information on a range of problems, including allegations of harassment and corruption in the military. The center processed more than 100 calls a day.
Soldiers’ families claimed corrupt officials controlled many military units, and there were media reports that the government conscripted soldiers with serious health conditions. According to an interview with a representative of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzort, the number of complaints they received from soldiers who were conscripted despite disqualifying health conditions grew every year.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and systemic corruption; overcrowding in some facilities remained a problem, and conditions in some cases were harsh and life threatening. Prisons generally lacked accommodations for inmates with disabilities.
Physical Conditions: In its 2016 report, the CPT noted that while there was no longer overcrowding of prisons at the national level, some facilities, especially Nubarashen Prison, remained overcrowded. The CPT noted material conditions of detention at Nubarashen Prison also remained unacceptable. According to the NGO Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), detention conditions in some cells of the Nubarashen Prison constituted torture and degrading and inhuman treatment. According to the CPT, many cells were damp, affected by mold, poorly lit and ventilated, dirty, and infested with vermin. For most inmates, water was only available at certain hours. Inmates relied on their families for food, bedding, and hygiene items. According to the CPT, similar conditions were observed in other penitentiary establishments.
According to official data, 14 prisoners died during the first 10 months of the year, 11 due to illness, two from suicide, and one by accident. According to the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates was one of the most significant human rights problems in prison. The PMG noted authorities typically did not open an investigation on a prison death if the deceased did not have a family to make such a request.
According to human rights organizations, in addition to the poor physical condition of the facilities, an organized criminal structure dominated prison life, and negligence in providing health care contributed to the death rate. The CPT noted in its 2016 report a continued tendency for prison managers to delegate authority partially to a select number of inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy and to use them to keep control over the inmate population.
In one death case, on April 5, Hrachya Gevorgyan died in custody at Armavir Penitentiary. Gevorgyan, who was serving an eight-year sentence for hostage-taking, violence against a representative of authorities, and extortion, was suffering from a number of serious health problems. During his imprisonment, including four years in pretrial detention, his physical and mental health had deteriorated to the degree that he was hardly able to talk and was unable to walk. Gevorgyan went on a number of hunger strikes to demand that authorities provide him proper care. According to lawyers for Helsinki Association of Human Rights, Gevorgyan, who continuously raised the problem of corruption and other prison abuses, was subjected to violence in prison on more than one occasion. On April 7, the prosecutor’s office of Armavir region opened a case on Gevorgyan’s death on charges of medical neglect.
Former inmates and many human rights observers also raised the issue of systemic corruption and bribery in the penitentiaries.
Health-care services in the prisons visited by CPT remained understaffed (the situation had actually worsened at Nubarashen Prison, compared with CPT’s prior visits) and poorly equipped, and there were problems with access to specialist care. There was also a serious shortage of medication. Prison medical personnel lacked independence and had to obtain administrative approval to transfer an inmate to a hospital or record a physical injury in a prisoner’s file.
According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, LGBTI individuals experienced the worst prison conditions. They were frequent targets of discrimination, violence, and sexual abuse and were forced by other inmates to perform degrading labor. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned such treatment and held LGBTI individuals in segregated cells in relatively worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual males, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating jobs and provide sexual services.
Administration: Authorities did not routinely conduct credible investigations nor take action to address in a meaningful manner problems involving the mistreatment of prisoners, disputes and violence between inmates, or widespread corruption. The early release program and release on medical grounds remained areas of concern due to systemic gaps in legislation and implementation. Convicts and detainees did not always have reasonable access to visitors due to the lack of suitable space for visitations. Heads of prisons and detention facilities arbitrarily used their discretion to deny prisoners and detainees visitation, contact with families, or the ability to receive periodicals.
Prisons did not have ombudspersons, and prisoners lacked effective mechanisms to report problems with their confinement. Authorities did not always permit prisoners and detainees to submit uncensored appeals to authorities concerning credible allegations of inhuman conditions.
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 International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers. In a notable exception, however, prison authorities continued to deny PMG monitors access to certain individuals in detention, including some detained members of the Sasna Tsrer armed group.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, police arbitrarily detained citizens, including participants in demonstrations.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service (NSS) is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. Police conduct initial investigations and detentions before turning a case over to the Investigative Committee. The president appoints the heads of all these bodies.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the NSS, the SIS, and the Investigative Committee, but the government lacked effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. Selective application of the law and impunity for powerful law enforcement officials were problems. In multiple instances throughout the year, law enforcement bodies refused to prosecute high-profile cases involving individuals linked to the government.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
Although the law requires law enforcement officers to obtain warrants or have reasonable suspicion in making arrests, authorities on occasion detained and arrested suspects without warrants or reasonable suspicion. By law an investigative body must either arrest or release individuals within three hours of taking them into custody. Within 72 hours, the investigative body must release the arrested person or file charges and obtain a detention warrant from a judge. Judges rarely denied police requests for detention warrants or reviewed police conduct during arrests. According to observers, police did not keep accurate records and either backdated or failed to fill out protocols of detention and arrest.
The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, legal representation, and to make a telephone call. Bail was a legal option, but judges employed it rarely and selectively. In practice, the judicial system and the law enforcement bodies placed the burden of proof on suspects to demonstrate they did not present a flight risk or would hamper the investigation, when determining the form of pretrial preventive measure.
Defendants were entitled to representation by an attorney from the moment of arrest, and the law provides for a public defender if the accused is indigent. According to human rights observers, few detainees were aware of their right to legal representation. Observers indicated police often avoided granting individuals their due-process rights by summoning and holding, rather than formally arresting, them, under the pretext that they were material witnesses rather than suspects. Police were thereby able to question individuals without giving them the benefit of a defense attorney.
In its 2016 report, the CPT reported observing the practice of persons being “invited” (usually by telephone) to come to police for what was presented as informal talks. Such talks could last several hours or even days, as the examiners sought to elicit confessions or collect evidence before declaring the persons interviewed a suspect and informing them of their rights.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to international organizations and human rights observers, police and NSS personnel often detained or arrested individuals without a warrant or probable cause. Human rights organizations stated such detentions were often a way to begin an investigation, with authorities hoping the suspect would confess and make further investigation unnecessary.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a chronic problem. According to official statistics, as of November 1, almost 35 percent of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees. According to the Ministry of Justice, during the first 10 months of the year, trial courts received 2,022 requests to use pretrial detention as a preventative measure, of which 1,911 were approved. In the same period, courts received 1,176 requests to extend pretrial detention, and 1,096 were approved; courts also received 567 requests for bail, of which 83 were approved. Some observers saw police use excessive pretrial detention as a means of inducing defendants to confess or to reveal self-incriminating evidence.
According to government data, 40 civilians were arrested and charged with various crimes related to the 2016 Sasna Tsrer takeover of a police station; charges included organizing mass disorders, damaging and destroying property, assistance in seizure of the building and seizure of hostages. By the end of the year, 15 persons were charged, indicted, and sentenced. Several were released from pretrial detention, but other civilian protestors remained in detention since July 2016 and were undergoing trial.
In a related high profile case, on March 16, Artur Sargsyan, nicknamed the “bread bringer” for taking food to members of the armed Sasna Tsrer group during their July 2016 seizure of the Erebuni police station, died in a civilian hospital, following a three-week hunger strike to protest his pretrial detention. Sargsyan was arrested in July 2016 and detained on charges of aiding the armed group. He was released in December 2016, but rearrested on February 9, allegedly for failing to show up at the summons of the investigative committee. According to media reports, Sargsyan suffered multiple health conditions incompatible with detention according to the law. Reportedly, Sargsyan was released from detention the first time only after the ECHR asked the government about his health. He was released on March 6 after his health further deteriorated and promptly hospitalized. In the days following his death, hundreds of demonstrators reportedly claimed Sargsyan died because the government refused his lawyers’ initial pleas to release him from detention on the grounds of deteriorating health. While a criminal case reportedly was opened on March 31 concerning the actions of doctors treating Sargsyan, the prosecutor’s office decided not to open a criminal case on the actions of the investigators, judges, and prison staff involved in the case.
The overuse of detention also applied to juvenile offenders. According to the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, juveniles were especially vulnerable in the criminal justice system and were not protected from violation of their rights.
Although the law requires prosecutors to present a well reasoned justification every two months for extending pretrial custody, judges routinely extended detention on unclear grounds. Authorities generally complied with the six-month limit in ordinary cases and 12-month limit for serious crimes as the total time in pretrial detention. Once prosecutors forward their cases to court for trial, the law does not provide time limits on further detention but indicates only that a trial must be of “reasonable length.” Prosecutors regularly requested and received trial postponements from judges. Prosecutors tended to blame trial delays on defense lawyers and their requests for more time to prepare a defense. Severely overburdened judicial dockets at all court levels also contributed to lengthy trials.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to legal experts, suspects had no practical opportunities to appeal the legality of their arrests. In cases where the courts ruled on a pretrial detention, another court was unlikely to challenge its ruling.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. Administrative courts were relatively more independent. A few attorneys reported they believed the Court of Cassation dictated the outcome of all significant cases to lower-court judges. According to some human rights groups, the Court of Cassation’s control over judicial decisions remained an overarching problem affecting judicial independence.
Judges remained subject to political pressure from every level of the executive branch, from law enforcement agencies, and the judicial hierarchy. Lacking life tenure, judges were vulnerable to dismissal and had no effective legal remedies.
According to legal experts, the courts felt compelled to satisfy investigators’ requests for pretrial detentions and prosecutors’ requests for detention while cases were at trial; legal experts stated such practices undermined judicial independence and reinforced the impression that courts were simply tools and that investigators actually determined the length of a detention. According to lawyers, dismissals of certain judges for independent decisions had a chilling effect on the judiciary.
Authorities generally complied with court orders.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys often failed to comply with procedural standards. Judges have no authority to discipline attorneys or compel their timely attendance at hearings, having to resort to complaints to the Prosecutor General’s Office or the Chamber of Advocates. Many judges felt compelled to work with prosecutors to achieve convictions.
NGOs reported judges routinely ignored defendants’ claims that their testimony was coerced through physical abuse. Human rights observers continued to report concerns about the reliance of courts on evidence that defendants claimed was obtained under duress, especially when such evidence was the basis for a conviction.
Human rights NGOs highlighted abuses of human rights of persons serving life sentences. According to these NGOs, individuals serving such sentences lacked the opportunity to have their sentences meaningfully reviewed by courts when changes in criminal law could possibly have resulted in less severe punishment. According to human rights groups, one of the greatest obstacles to justice for those serving life sentences was the court-ordered destruction of case files and evidence. This action deprived convicts of the opportunity to have their cases reviewed based on forensic analysis using new technologies, such as DNA testing.
The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary largely lacked the independence to enforce this right.
The law provides for presumption of innocence, but suspects usually did not enjoy this right. During trials authorities informed defendants in detail of the charges against them, and the law required the provision of free language interpretation for non-Armenian speakers when necessary.
The law requires that most trials be public but permits exceptions, including in the interest of “morals,” national security, and the “protection of the private lives of the participants.” Defendants have the right to counsel of their own choosing, and the law requires the government to provide them with a public defender upon request. A shortage of defense lawyers sometimes led to denial of this right outside of Yerevan.
According to the law, defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and examine the government’s case in advance of a trial, but defendants and their attorneys had very little ability to challenge government witnesses or police, while courts tended to accept prosecution materials routinely. In particular, the law prohibits police officers from testifying in their official capacities unless they were witnesses or victims in a case. Judges were reluctant to challenge police experts, hampering a defendant’s ability to mount a credible defense. Judges’ control over witness lists and over the determination of the relevance of potential witnesses in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Defense attorneys complained that judges at times did not allow them to request the attendance at trial of defense witnesses. According to lawyers and domestic and international human rights observers, including the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, the prosecution retained a dominant position in the criminal justice system.
NGOs reported the authorities’ treatment of defense lawyers and defendants during the Sasna Tsrer and other high-profile trials deprived the defendants of the right to a fair trial. On July 11, for example, the local NGO Protection of Rights without Borders (PRWB) stated in its report, Crisis of Justice, that authorities violated the right to a fair trial in the Sasna Tsrer case and four other cases through interference and hindrance of the professional activities of defense lawyers, harassment of defense lawyers, violence and harassment against defendants; and efforts to restrict citizen participation in the court sessions, including, in one case, by prosecution. The PRWB attributed the authorities’ harassment of defense attorneys to the tendency of officials to identify defense lawyers with the persons they defended.
On August 9, the Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), an international network of human rights NGOs, elaborated on a concern that independent defense lawyers working on high-profile cases allegedly were subjected to harassment and obstruction by state agents. According to the CSP, lawyers working on the Sasna Tsrer and similar high-profile cases were prevented from visiting their clients in detention and denied the opportunity to hold private discussions with them. In other cases, officials at detention facilities allegedly searched defendants after lawyer-client meetings and confiscated or destroyed meeting notes. Some defense lawyers were subjected to lengthy and intrusive security checks when arriving in court. When the lawyers protested the checks, considering them unlawful, judges barred them from attending the court sessions, effectively preventing them from defending their clients. The presiding judge then requested that the Chamber of Advocates (i.e., bar association) discipline the absent defense attorneys. Such requests also were made when lawyers refused to continue to take part in hearings after their clients were temporarily removed from the courtroom for allegedly violating court rules.
On September 13, 184 attorneys went on strike to object to the security checks.
Defendants, prosecutors, and injured parties have the right to appeal a court verdict and often exercised it.
There was an expectation that judges would find the accused guilty in almost every case, and the vast majority of criminal cases sent to trial, including many weak cases, resulted in conviction.
In one of the rare cases in which a judge acquitted a defendant, on July 18, a criminal court of appeal reversed the 2015 acquittal of Karen Kungurtsev on charges of attempted murder of Davit Hovakimyan, sentencing him to seven years in prison by pressing additional charges. According to Kungurtsev’s lawyers, the judges made their decision based on assertions that were not examined in court with the aim of covering up the true perpetrator of the crime. The victim’s family continued to support Kungurtsev’s claim of innocence, asserting that the real killer of Davit Hovakimyan was the son of a NSS official who had used his position to influence police and prosecutors to pin the crime on Kungurtsev.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
According to local human rights NGOs, there were political prisoners and detainees in the country, but many of the cases in which trials were underway involved allegations of the use of violence. A number of cases of alleged politically motivated incarcerations were pending with the ECHR. Human Rights Watch called on the government to “make publicly available any credible evidence that justifies the serious criminal charges against the protest organizers and participants. The authorities should not seek to prosecute protesters and impose long prison sentences in retaliation for their vocal, but peaceful activism.”
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Although citizens had access to courts to file lawsuits seeking damages for alleged human rights violations, the courts were widely perceived as corrupt. Citizens also had the option of challenging in Constitutional Court the constitutionality of laws and legal acts that violated their fundamental rights and freedoms. According to lawyers, the lower instance courts did not adhere to precedents of the Cassation Court, the ECHR, and the Constitutional Court. As a result, the lower instance courts continued to carry out the same legal mistakes. According to lawyers, while civil and administrative judicial proceedings happened with a greater degree of independence, the lack of judicial independence in criminal proceedings resulted in overall discrediting of the judicial system.
Citizens who exhaust domestic legal remedies may appeal to the ECHR cases involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government generally complied with ECHR awards of monetary compensation but did not meaningfully review the cases on which the ECHR had ruled. When ruling on a case to which a prior ECHR decision applied, courts often did not follow the applicable ECHR precedent.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits unauthorized searches and provides for the rights to privacy and confidentiality of communications. Law enforcement organizations did not always abide by these prohibitions.
Authorities may not legally wiretap telephones, intercept correspondence, or conduct searches without obtaining the permission of a judge based on compelling evidence of criminal activity. The constitution, however, stipulates exceptions when confidentiality of communication may be restricted without a court order when necessary to protect state security and conditioned by the special status of those in communication. Although law enforcement bodies generally adhered to legal procedures, attorneys claimed judges often authorized wiretaps, the interception of correspondence, and searches without receiving the compelling evidence required by law, rendering the legal procedures largely a formality. Authorities reportedly tapped the telephone communications, email, and other digital communications of individuals the government wanted to keep under scrutiny, including human rights defenders, activists, and political figures. According to some human rights observers, authorities maintained “dossiers” of activists, political figures, and others that were used to exert pressure on a person.