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. Credible reports continued of unlawful killings during the fall 2020 intensive fighting between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijan forces (see section 1.g and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan).
Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns over noncombat deaths in the army and the failure of law enforcement bodies to conduct credible investigations into those deaths. According to civil society organizations and victims’ families, the practice of qualifying many noncombat deaths as suicides at the onset of investigations made it less likely that abuses would be uncovered and investigated. According to human rights lawyers, the biggest obstacle to investigation of military deaths was the destruction or nonpreservation of key evidence, both by the military command (in cases of internal investigations) and by the specific investigation body working on a case. According to human rights NGOs, the government’s lack of transparency in reporting on military deaths, whether classified as combat or noncombat, led to public distrust of official information in this sphere.
On August 19, the Ministry of Defense reported that three conscripts had been found dead with gunshot wounds at a military post in southeastern Syunik region near the border with Azerbaijan. Later that day the ministry announced the arrest of a soldier on suspicion of murder. On August 23, the Investigative Committee reported the arrest of the post commander, who was suspected of “inciting the unlawful intentional killing of servicemen and committing violent sexual acts against a serviceman.” According to civil society, the murders were indicative of years of official failure to act on multiple watchdog reports of discipline problems, impunity, and corruption inside the army. According to official information, the investigation was underway and both suspects remained in detention.
According to observers there was a notable increase in soldier suicides following the fall 2020 fighting. According to NGOs the trauma of the 2020 fighting was a leading factor in the suicides. The Prosecutor General’s Office reported a high rate of suicide among the family members of servicemembers and persons who participated in the conflict as volunteers. During the year the government initiated programs to provide free psychological assistance to thousands of conflict participants, servicemembers, and family members. According to NGOs the assistance provided was not always sufficient or effective. One servicemember told media, for example, that when he sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder, the military psychologist advised him to try not to think about the conflict.
According to a July 26 report by the NGO Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor (HCAV), deaths in the military due to health problems continued, although it was unclear what factors had led to the health conditions or if the conditions had been acquired prior to or during military service. In one case HCAV reported that failure to provide prompt and appropriate medical assistance led to the death of a conscript.
On May 11, Prime Minister Pashinyan was briefed by a working group established in August 2020 to examine noncombat deaths, some of which had occurred more than a decade prior. The working group, composed of three independent attorneys picked by the families and three experts from the Ministry of Justice and the prime minister’s office, had completed its examination of records related to the 2007 death of Tigran Ohanjanyan, the first of eight noncombat death cases it was reviewing. According to one of the lawyers, the review revealed major violations by more than 50 current and former officials at various levels of seniority from every law enforcement agency as well as army officers, who had covered up Ohanjanyan’s killing. In contrast to prior reviews of this case, the working group was given full access to case materials. According to the lawyer, the findings were forwarded to the Prosecutor General’s Office to initiate a case into the alleged cover-up as well as a new investigation of the killing. According to the government, the investigation of Tigran Ohanjanyan’s death was reopened on September 25 and was in progress with no suspects facing criminal charges as of year’s end.
Authorities took no steps during the year to set up a fact-finding commission to examine noncombat deaths, among other human rights abuses; the commission had been scheduled to have been established by 2020 (see section 5).
There was no progress in the investigation into the 2018 death of Armen Aghajanyan, who was found hanged in the Nubarashen National Center for Mental Health where he had been transferred from Nubarashen Penitentiary for a psychological assessment. There was progress, however, in the investigation into his alleged torture. His family believed Aghajanyan was killed to prevent his identification of penitentiary guards who beat and tortured him prior to his transfer to the hospital. The investigation into Aghajanyan’s alleged suicide was suspended for the third time on March 3. One of the attackers in Aghajanyan’s torture case, Major Armen Hovhannisyan, was initially charged with torture and falsification of documents, but the trial court requalified his actions as exceeding official authority and released him on the basis of a 2018 amnesty. On March 5, the Court of Cassation accepted the case for review based on applications by the prosecutor’s office and Aghajanyan’s family, following a failed appeal of the trial court’s decision. On October 15, the Court of Cassation ruled that the lower court’s requalification of the torture charges was not grounded and was in violation of European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case law; it sent the case for further review to the Court of Appeals.
On March 26, the Constitutional Court ruled that a criminal code article under which former president Robert Kocharyan and other high-ranking officials were prosecuted for their alleged involvement in sending the military to break up protests after the 2008 presidential election, resulting in the deaths of eight civilians and two police officers, did not comply with two articles of the constitution and was therefore invalid. As a result on April 6, trial court judge Anna Danibekyan dropped the charges of overthrowing the constitutional order against the defendants but stated that Kocharyan and his former chief of staff, Armen Gevorgyan, would continue to stand trial on bribery charges. The judge acquitted two other defendants in this case, retired Ministry of Defense generals Yuri Khachaturov and Seyran Ohanian, who were charged with overthrowing the constitutional order in connection with the postelection unrest. The court denied the prosecutor’s appeal to requalify the case under a different article of the criminal code. Many in the legal community questioned the original decision to indict the officials under the specific article chosen.
Although the trial ran for three years before the Constitutional Court ruling, the trial court never discussed the merits of the case due to the stalling tactics employed by the defense, which presented countless motions and appeals. As a result, in September 2020 family members of the victims of the 2008 postelection violence refused to attend further court hearings, blaming the Prosecutor General’s Office for turning the trial into a farce and not taking effective measures to move the case forward. Following the Constitutional Court decision that the criminal code article under which Kocharyan was charged was unconstitutional, lawyers for the families averred that the prosecution’s failure served the “interests of a specific group,” a reference to Kocharyan and his associates. The investigation into others suspected of the 2008 postelection violence, including those charged with excessive use of force and murder, continued.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. A new criminal code which was adopted on May 5 and scheduled to enter into force in July 2022, would criminalize enforced disappearances, defined as “denial or hiding the fact of or the status or the place of a legally or illegally detained person by an official, another person or a group of persons, with the authorization, assistance, consent or connivance of the state as a result of which the disappeared person found himself outside the protection of law.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, more than 5,000 Armenians and Azerbaijanis remained unaccounted for since the 1990s as a result of the conflict. According to police, as of 2019 a total of 867 Armenians were missing since the 1990s due to the conflict. According to the government, as of October 29, 321 persons were considered missing after the fall 2020 fighting.
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.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were several reports of arbitrary or selective arrest during the year. There were reports that ethnic Armenian forces unlawfully executed some Azerbaijani detainees in 2020 (see section 1.g.)
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law provides that 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. The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, to legal representation, and to make a telephone call. Bail was a legal option.
According to human rights lawyers, there continued to be significant use of pretrial detention, with suspects bearing the burden of proof to demonstrate they did not present a flight risk or would not hamper an investigation. Furthermore, lawyers said that court detention decisions were increasingly unpredictable, with different detention conditions placed on defendants in similar circumstances.
On August 4, the NGO Protection of Rights Without Borders reported that according to official statistics, in 2020 the application of custodial sanctions (i.e., imprisonment) decreased from 2018 and 2019 levels, while the use of noncustodial sanctions and the conditional nonapplication of custodial sanctions and the use of fines as a punishment increased.
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 at times 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. This practice was particularly evident in the regions.
In its May 25 report, the CPT suggested that the practice of “informal talks” (i.e., persons being “invited,” usually by telephone, to come to police, prior to being officially declared a suspect and detained), criticized by the CPT many times in the past, was not fully eliminated, especially outside Yerevan.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were several reports of arbitrary or selective arrest during the year. For example on June 27, police special forces near the Government Building in Yerevan detained a citizen purportedly for chanting “Nikol, go away” in reference to the prime minister.
According to the NGO HCAV, police apprehended 20 to 30 persons from Marts village, many at night, ostensibly while seeking individuals who had attacked police on August 14 immediately after a car crash. The crash followed a police chase of a car of suspects and resulted in two deaths. As reported by HCAV, after the crash police prevented ambulances from providing medical aid. Police reportedly entered homes by force without identifying themselves and apprehended suspects’ relatives who had not been involved in the altercation with police. Authorities did not provide any information to the individuals taken into custody regarding the reason for their apprehension or legal status. Police allegedly struck some of the detainees’ heads and throats, forced them to stand with their arms up, and did not allow them to sit for lengthy periods. One individual from a nearby village was allegedly apprehended and almost “beaten to death” before police realized they had taken the wrong man. HCAV also reported that some individuals were taken into custody several times, creating an atmosphere of fear among village residents, some of whom were afraid to leave their homes, while others were afraid to spend the night indoors.
During the campaign prior to the June parliamentary elections and after reelection, Prime Minister Pashinyan claimed his party would enact a “steel mandate,” strictly prosecuting persons who violated the law. The opposition and some independent human rights observers asserted that such prosecutions largely targeted the prime minister’s opponents. During and following the elections, four opposition-linked mayors in the Syunik region were arrested for various alleged crimes related to embezzlement or bribery. As the mayors had openly opposed Pashinyan, their arrests raised questions concerning the potential selective application of the law and political motivations for the arrests as well as questions concerning the necessity of placing the mayors in pretrial detention (see Section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation).
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. Some observers saw investigators’ use of excessive pretrial detention as a means of inducing defendants to confess or to reveal self-incriminating evidence.
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 a 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, and there were no mechanisms to ensure trials were concluded within a reasonable time.
In January 2020 the ombudsperson’s office released a special report on the lack of mechanisms to ensure court system accountability for compliance with time standards or to obtain redress if a trial has not met the reasonable timeframe requirement. According to the report, 2019 data from the Supreme Judicial Council indicated 155 criminal and 1,628 civil cases in Yerevan alone had continued for more than two years, some for more than 10 years. A total of 1,123 such cases were handled by just seven judges.
On February 13, the NGO Hetq Investigative Journalists examined 10 civil, 10 administrative, and 10 criminal court cases, all of which had been in progress for at least five years. Hetq’s investigation revealed cases that had been in progress for up to 18 years, with no final court verdict. Experts who analyzed the cases found that the primary factors leading to delays were subjective and linked to arbitrary decisions by the judge, such as referral of the case to another judge, training or leave of absence of a judge, court hearings scheduled with large time gaps (i.e., from two to six months) or rescheduled due to technical problems, lengthy expertise examinations, and legal gaps. In 2020 trials also were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fall 2020 fighting. In many cases criminal trials lasted such a long time that proceedings were terminated due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. When defendants agreed to suspend their cases on these grounds, they could not avail themselves of the opportunity to apply for compensation, as they might have done had they been acquitted, while victims did not receive redress. Hetq reviewed one case in which the defendant had spent 11.5 years in pretrial detention while his case went through an appeals and reexamination process.
Although in March 2020 the Supreme Judicial Council ruled that measures such as the use of online communications tools must be adopted to ensure that trials continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, trial delays persisted. According to a 2020 joint monitoring report of the NGOs Helsinki Association for Human Rights and Human Rights Power, a number of courts faced significant delays, apparently due to a lack of technical preparedness; the sessions that were delayed included those devoted to the discussion of urgent matters such as detention measures. The law does not allow for telecommunication measures in criminal cases, and according to observers, delays in such cases were mostly due to the failure of the judges and the prosecutors to appear in court.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law allows suspects to appeal the legality of arrests in court. According to some human rights lawyers, however, even when courts determined arrests violated the law, courts would often satisfy the investigation body’s pretrial detention requests.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. Popular trust in the impartiality of judges remained low, while civil society organizations highlighted that the justice sector retained many officials who served the previous authorities and issued rulings consistently favorable to them. Corruption of judges remained a concern. During the year NGOs continued to report on judges who had acquired significant amounts of property and assets that were disproportionate to their salaries, and they noted that the absence of vetting of all standing judges based on objective criteria – particularly of those in the Supreme Judicial Council and Constitutional Court – undermined the integrity of the judiciary.
Some human rights lawyers noted that some of the few truly independent judges faced internal pressure from superiors – including the Supreme Judicial Council – on some judicial decisions. Such pressure reportedly included suggestions their reputations or careers would be impacted and through the threat of selective punishment of minor misdemeanors. The lawyers said court decisions on cases involving similar circumstances had become unpredictable and in some high-profile corruption cases decisions, appeared to be politically motivated. They asserted that ongoing judicial reforms primarily offered ad hoc and temporary fixes rather than systemic reform.
In March 2020 parliament adopted changes to the judicial code and several related laws to provide a legal basis for checking and assessing the legality of judges’ property acquisition, their professionalism and respect for human rights, and their impartiality. In April 2020 a group of civil society organizations criticized these judicial integrity mechanisms. According to the group’s statement, the extremely limited scope of the integrity review was fundamentally disappointing, as it would be conducted only for candidates for Constitutional Court judgeships, prosecutors, or investigators, but not for sitting judges, prosecutors, or investigators. The constitution prohibits retroactive application of law and would have to be amended to allow the vetting of sitting judges.
The Commission on the Prevention of Corruption conducts asset declaration analysis of sitting judges and nominees to public positions, such as judges, prosecutors, and investigators. Based on the commission’s review of the property of judges, three disciplinary, three administrative, and one criminal case had been initiated as of September 3.
According to observers, administrative courts had relatively more internal independence but were understaffed and faced a long backlog.
Authorities generally enforced court orders.
NGOs reported judges routinely ignored defendants’ claims that their testimony was coerced through physical abuse. Human rights observers continued to report concerns regarding the courts’ reliance on evidence that defendants claimed was obtained under duress, especially when such evidence was the basis for a conviction.
The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right.
The law provides for presumption of innocence but suspects usually did not enjoy this right. During trials authorities generally informed defendants in detail of the charges against them. The law requires the provision of free language interpretation 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 provide them with a public defender upon request. A shortage of defense lawyers sometimes led to denial of this right outside Yerevan.
The law provides that 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. 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. Human rights organizations reported there were insufficient provisions for prosecutorial impartiality and accountability and no objective criteria for the nomination and selection of candidates for general prosecutor.
Defendants, prosecutors, and injured parties have the right to appeal a court verdict and often exercised it. In an example of a trial that even the victim’s family deemed unjust to the accused, criminal proceedings – originally opened in 2013 – against Karen Kungurtsev for the alleged killing of Davit Hovakimyan continued during the year. On October 15, the trial court in Vanadzor acquitted Kungurtsev for a second time, but the prosecution filed another appeal on November 4, further delaying the investigation into who really killed Hovakimyan. A 2018 Court of Cassation order returned the case to trial court and released Kungurtsev on bail. Kungurtsev was originally acquitted in 2015, but in 2017 the criminal court of appeal reversed the acquittal and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The victim’s family and the Helsinki Association for Human Rights continued to support Kungurtsev’s claim of innocence, asserting that Hovakimyan’s real killer was the son of an NSS official who used his position to influence police and prosecutors to investigate Kungurtsev. Following the resumption of the trial in 2018, two key witnesses in the case apologized to Kungurtsev and the victim’s father for providing false testimony six years earlier under pressure from law enforcement officers and gave potentially exonerating testimony in support of Kungurtsev.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.
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 some lawyers, lower courts did not adhere to precedents set by the Court of Cassation, the ECHR, and the Constitutional Court. As a result, lower courts continued to carry out the same legal mistakes.
According to one expert cited in Hetq’s February 13 report, Delayed justice is justice denied, going to court could not be considered effective when, due to the length of the process, a person suffered more damage from going to court, even when they won the case, than they incurred in the first place.
Citizens who exhaust domestic legal remedies may appeal cases involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the ECHR. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed. The government generally complied with ECHR awards of monetary compensation and reopened some cases on which the ECHR had ruled. When ruling on a case to which a prior ECHR decision applied, courts reportedly did not often 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 tap 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, observers claimed that certain judges authorized wiretaps and other surveillance requests from the NSS and police without the compelling evidence required by law. By contrast there were no reports that courts violated legal procedures when responding to such authorization requests from the SIS, the Investigative Committee, or the State Revenue Committee. Human rights lawyers reported cases of wiretapping of privileged attorney/client communication as part of criminal investigations. Such wiretapping is prohibited by law.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
Killings: At year’s end authorities were investigating two unlawful killings during the intensive fall 2020 fighting involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan (also see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan).
The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the ECHR accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the court.
According to a joint report released in May by the NGOs the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Truth Hounds, When Embers Burst into Flames – International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law Violations during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, there was prima facie evidence that members of ethnic Armenian armed forces unlawfully executed two wounded and captured Azerbaijani combatants. The evidence consisted of two videos. As IPHR and Truth Hounds were unable to confirm the videos’ authenticity, the report stated, “If these killings are confirmed through further investigations, they would clearly violate the [International Humanitarian Law] prohibition on violence to life and person and would constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The killings of wounded Azerbaijani soldiers would equally violate … Armenia’s Penal Code and constitute gross violations of the right to life under … the [European Convention on Human Rights].”
On April 24, the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office initiated a search in Bashlibel, Kalbajar District, Azerbaijan, for the graves of Azerbaijanis allegedly killed by Armenian armed forces in 1993. According to the Azerbaijan Prosecutor General’s Office, the remains of 12 Azerbaijani civilians were found. Three additional bodies were found in June, and another grave with multiple remains was found on August 30.
Since the November 2020 cease-fire, landmine explosions in Azerbaijani territories previously controlled by Armenia resulted in the deaths of seven Azerbaijani military personnel and 29 civilians; another 109 military and 44 civilians were injured, according to the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office on December 9.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: In When Embers Burst into Flames – International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law Violations during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, the NGOs IPHR and Truth Hounds reported that based on interviews with former Azerbaijani captives and a video depicting the abuse of one of the captives, “at least seven Azerbaijani prisoners of war were subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of Armenian/Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces.” The report also stated that three additional cases of mistreatment had been captured on video, although not independently verified by IPHR and Truth Hounds, and required further investigation. In one of the latter cases, the mistreatment may have resulted in the victim’s death, although this was not independently confirmed. According to the report, “Systematic beatings, inhuman conditions of detention, denial of medical care and other basic needs, cruelty and humiliation described by witnesses or captured on video amounts to a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions [by Armenian/Nagorno-Karabakh forces] and the violation of the prohibition against torture and [cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment…under the [European Convention on Human Rights].” The report also noted the alleged conduct would violate the country’s penal code.
According to the same report, eight videos from social media appeared to show “the ill-treatment and despoliation of dead Azerbaijani soldiers by members of Armenian/Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces.” The videos were not independently verified, and the conduct that they purported to show required further investigation. Nevertheless, the report described the videos as constituting “prima facie evidence of multiple cases of despoliation” of the dead by Armenian/Nagorno-Karabakh forces. The report concluded, “All credible allegations of despoliation of the dead require further investigation. If proven to the applicable standard, this conduct would violate the [International Humanitarian Law] prohibition on despoliation and degrading treatment and may also violate … Armenia’s Penal Code.”
According to the government, authorities initiated six criminal cases in December 2020 investigating actions of Armenian servicemen during the fall 2020 conflict on charges of “serious violations of international humanitarian law during armed conflicts.” Of the six cases, four involved alleged murder, torture, and inhuman treatment, one involved alleged murder and torture, and one involved alleged murder. The government combined all six cases into one criminal proceeding on June 22. The investigation was underway at year’s end.
An international photojournalist documented the destruction of dozens of Azerbaijani cemeteries in Fuzuli, Agdam, Zangilan, Kalbajar, and Jebrayil with thousands of photographs. Graves were desecrated and in some instances evidence of grave robbery – such as holes dug above individual graves – was found; other sites showed evidence of destruction and exhumation by heavy construction equipment. Foreign observers visiting the Alley of Martyrs in Agdam photographed holes where bodies were once interred; one broken headstone remained in the cemetery. The vandalism of headstones left few individual graves untouched. Many graves had the carefully hewn faces of the deceased (carved into gravestones) destroyed by hammers or similar objects. Additionally, the corpses from Azerbaijani graves were exhumed and gold teeth removed, leaving skulls and bones strewn across Azerbaijani cemeteries. According to the photojournalist, Armenian graves remained virtually undisturbed.