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 during the year.
Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns regarding 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.
As of November 20, the government characterized at least 15 military deaths as noncombat related but rather due to murder, suicide, mishandling weapons, and health reasons. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on September 8, Ombudsperson Kristinne Grigoryan expressed deep concern regarding noncombat deaths in the military, noting that in addition to a lack of command accountability and the ineffectiveness of investigations, a primary reason for the problem was lack of discipline in the army.
On July 22, the Investigative Committee (IC) announced the conclusion of its investigation into the August 2021 deaths of three conscripts who were shot at a military post in the southeastern Syunik region. According to media reports, the three conscripts witnessed the senior officer at the post subject another conscript to sexual violence, and when discovered, the officer forced the alleged victim to kill the witnesses. Following the investigation, the IC dropped the charges of sexual violence against the officer and instead both the officer and alleged victim were indicted for the murders. The families of both defendants, their attorneys, and human rights watchdogs questioned the thoroughness and quality of the investigation, including possible tampering with evidence.
There were multiple reports during the year of sudden deaths of military service members. According to an expert from the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor (HCAV) NGO, the deaths indicated individuals were enrolled in military service without a proper and comprehensive medical examination.
In the first half of the year, a working group established by the prime minister in 2020 to examine noncombat deaths and composed of three independent attorneys picked by the families and three experts from the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister’s Office had examined five noncombat deaths and presented its findings to the Prosecutor’s Office. By the end of the year, however, law enforcement and prosecutors had taken no further actions based on those findings, although investigations continued. In June, the incoming prosecutor general, who had served on the working group, committed to following through with the results of those examinations during her parliamentary nomination hearings. On December 21, the families of soldiers killed under noncombat conditions held a protest in front of the Prosecutor General’s Office stating that she had taken no further action in those cases and that the perpetrators were not punished but promoted to different positions in the justice system.
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. On March 9, a Yerevan appellate court found former prison warden Armen Hovhannisyan guilty of torturing Aghajanyan and sentenced him to more than seven and one-half years in prison. Another suspect in the case, Nubarashen penitentiary employee Artush Mirakyan, stood trial during the year for his involvement in the torture of Aghajanyan. According to a Helsinki Association for Human Rights (HAHR) lawyer who represented Aghajanyan’s family, Mirakyan was appointed to serve in the Kotayk regional police while he stood trial. Following Aghajanyan’s family’s appeal, on December 14, the court of appeal ordered the prosecution to reopen the investigation into his death.
There was no progress in accountability for the post-2008 presidential election deaths. In April 2021, a trial court judge dropped charges against former President Robert Kocharyan and other high-ranking officials 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. The trial judge’s decision was made in concert with the Constitutional Court’s determination that the criminal code articles under which the officials were prosecuted were unconstitutional and therefore invalid. The government did not report progress on the investigations into others suspected of the 2008 postelection violence, including those charged with excessive use of force and murder.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the conflict with Azerbaijan and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, 4,931 Armenians and Azerbaijanis remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict, of whom a total of 761 Armenians were missing since the 1990s due to the conflict. According to the government, by the end of the year, 203 persons (including 20 civilians) were considered missing after the fall 2020 fighting and three more military service members were considered missing after the September 13-14 hostilities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Other Related Abuses
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 in December 2021.
With the disbanding of the Special Investigative Service (SIS) in 2021, the investigation of torture cases was initially redistributed among the National Security Service (NSS), the IC, and the newly created Anticorruption Committee. With the enforcement of a new criminal procedural code on July 1, the responsibility to investigate criminal cases on torture was transferred to the Investigative Committee, but the function of preliminary investigation into crimes (including torture) committed by Investigative Committee investigators was given to the NSS. According to human rights lawyers, in the past torture cases were investigated by SIS investigators. As those investigators had moved to the Anticorruption Committee, the IC investigators had no experience with torture cases and were unprepared to adequately respond to reports of torture.
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. For example, police Major Gerasim Mardanyan, charged with torture in 2017 for his alleged abuse of Zhora Simonyan while in police custody, was appointed deputy chief of Tavush police in 2021 and continued to serve in the police force while the case against him was in progress. According to the government, the majority of criminal cases of 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 or the application of the 2018 amnesty.
Reports of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment continued. For example, on August 28, the HAHR published a video account from an individual known as “H.V.” who was abused by the police after he showed, during a stop and search, marijuana he said he carried for personal use. According to the victim, the incident occurred on June 27 in Yerevan when he was traveling back to Yerevan from Ararat Region. Police had stopped his taxi and asked him whether he was carrying any weapons or drugs, when H.V. admitted to carrying some marijuana. The police officers then allegedly dragged him behind the car, threw him on the ground, and insulted and beat him. Photographs of the victim taken after the attack showed multiple injuries and bruises on his forehead, shoulders, back, and arms. Despite assurances by H.V. that he would cooperate, he was handcuffed and dragged by the hair into the car and taken to the Shengavit police station in Yerevan. At the police station, he asked for the reason for such treatment and demanded to see an attorney. He was told he could see an attorney when he left the police station. Reportedly the deputy head of the Shengavit police called him a “dealer” and threatened to break his legs. An HAHR attorney filed a complaint with the Investigative Committee on August 1, which was under investigation at year’s end.
There was no progress in bringing to justice the Vanadzor police officers who abused Samvel Hasanyan and two other suspects upon arrest on suspicion of burglarizing an apartment in 2021.
During the year, the trial of three police officers from Yerevan’s Nor Nork District on charges of torture for the 2020 abuse of weight-lifting champion Armen Ghazaryan and another citizen continued.
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, as was the video surveillance system installed in the police stations. The HAHR reported repeated refusals by police officers to submit video recordings of relevance for torture cases; police made various claims to the HAHR as to why they could not produce the footage, including claims of electricity disruptions, that the recordings were only transmitted live and were not saved, and that video recordings were in more limited locations around police stations than previously indicated.
In its 2021 report, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (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.
Reports continued of degrading treatment in the army; its scale was unknown. For example, in September, the NGO Peace Dialogue published its research on the human rights situation in the army based on in-depth interviews with 112 former conscripts who completed their service within the past five years. According to the report, a majority of military service members interviewed reported quarreling or fighting with their peers; such instances were often resolved through interpersonal relationships reminiscent of criminal subculture, rather than in accordance with military statute. According to those interviewed, the most unacceptable behavior among peers was cooperation with law enforcement bodies (reporting a crime), Peace Dialogue found. The majority of service members interviewed were subjected to or witnessed mistreatment (torture, inhuman or degrading treatment), including beatings, insults, and ridicule. The rights of some vulnerable service members, including those who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+), were grossly violated both by commanding staff and fellow service members and included inhuman and degrading treatment and labor exploitation. The vast majority of military personnel did not seek psychological support. According to the research, there were reports of service members in need of medical attention who did not receive it. A few service members also said that they had been forced by the Military Police to confess or testify against peers in disciplinary cases.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Several reports raised human rights concerns related to prison and detention conditions, including physical conditions, access to health care and psychological support, treatment of LGBTQI+ persons, and predation by hierarchical criminal/organized crime structures. The government closed two penitentiaries on January 1. Parliament adopted a new penitentiary code on June 15, which came into force on July 1 together with a new criminal code and criminal procedural code adopted the previous year, in an effort to address major penitentiary problems in a systemic way.
Abusive Physical Conditions: There were reports of degrading conditions at prison facilities, despite government efforts to implement renovations. Human rights observers and the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, 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 the summer.
On March 17, the Office of the Ombudsperson, following a monitoring visit to the Abovyan penitentiary for women and minors, noted the dilapidated physical condition of the penitentiary, including a high level of humidity, no separate facilities, such as bathrooms, for pregnant women and convicts with children, no play areas for children under the age of three who lived with their mothers, as well as inadequate medication and food for children. The ombudsperson’s report also noted juveniles in solitary confinement lacked adequate human contact. There were also problems ensuring the rights of foreign citizens due to a lack of translation services. In a separate report, the PMG described the condition of the Abovyan penitentiary building that housed separated incarceration cells (as opposed to dorm style) as inhuman and emphasized that living in such conditions for prolonged periods was tantamount to torture.
On March 9, following a monitoring visit, the PMG announced that convicts on hunger strike were kept in inhuman and degrading conditions in Nubarashen penitentiary due to the cells’ dilapidated and unsanitary conditions.
According to official statistics, prison deaths totaled 17 for the first 11 months of the year. One detainee died from stroke during а court session. The government and NGOs did not attribute any of the deaths to physical conditions. The PMG reported a lack of accountability from the Investigative Committee in charge of investigating prison deaths and a lack of information on the outcomes of its investigations.
The PMG reported an increase in the number of suicides, cases of self-harm, and hunger strikes due to continued lack of sufficient psychological services in prisons, noting that the mental health of inmates deteriorated following COVID-19 restrictions in previous years. The PMG also reported that most hunger strikes were connected to demands for better medical care. The PMG reported that Armavir prison lacked basic diagnostic equipment for chronic diseases and access to doctors was limited.
According to observers, there was continued need for better psychological services and staff in prisons, despite government programs to increase pay and reallocate psychologists from closed penitentiaries.
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. According to the government, during the year, authorities investigated 11 criminal cases connected to the prison criminal subculture involving 18 persons, of which one case involving eight persons was sent to court with indictments and the rest were under investigation. Two of the cases under investigation related to monetary transfers between persons tied to the criminal hierarchy in and out of prisons. In addition, authorities indicted nine persons in three additional cases launched the previous year. 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. While observers noted some progress fighting systemic corruption and said that prison administrations did not participate in corruption schemes, experts assessed that corruption was likely to continue as long as the criminal subculture continued to exist.
According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, LGBTQI+ individuals continued to experience discrimination and abuse. The PMG noted that homosexual men; those assumed to be homosexual; those associating with homosexual men; and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, as well as those who refused to live by “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.
In March 2021, 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. According to the Ministry of Justice, sexual orientation was included in a list of issues to be addressed during an initial inmate needs assessment upon admission.
The PMG reported a case of a transgender woman who was kept in isolation in the medical ward for her safety during the year. According to the PMG, prison administrators said they did not understand where a transgender woman should serve her sentence. The transgender woman reported problems with access to health care, particularly dental care, and suffered from isolation and lack of human contact.
During the year, observers reported prosecutors presented obstacles to implementing improved early release processes and transfers to less strict regimes of incarceration. For example, on April 15, according to human rights reporter Zhanna Alexanyan, the Prosecutor General’s Office reversed two decisions by the Convicts’ Placement Commission, which operates under the Penitentiary Service and determines the type of penitentiary institution where convicts will serve their sentences. In the first instance, two inmates serving life sentences were returned to a closed-prison regime (in which they were confined within the prison at all times) after six months in a semiopen regime with greater freedom to move around within the secure perimeter during the day. In the second instance, other inmates were returned to a closed regime after one month in a semiopen regime. According to the report, in both cases the prosecution did not provide valid justifications for the transfers. The new penitentiary code limits prosecutors’ ability to appeal placement commission decisions.
According to official data, approximately 1 percent of the prison population refused food.
Administration: Authorities did not conduct prompt investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment.
On July 6, the ombudsperson issued a statement noting the continued problematic practices of not registering the injuries of prisoners during routine medical examinations in penitentiaries, not providing proper medical examination of injuries sustained in the penitentiary, and not sending records of alleged mistreatment to the relevant authorities. According to the Ministry of Justice, instructions were given to avoid delays, but no one was held responsible.
Independent Monitoring: The government 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. On May 11, the Ministry of Justice adopted a new decree addressing the PMG’s concerns on restrictions imposed on the group’s activities in 2020. The decree expanded the list of those who could serve as a PMG member and reduced the response time of the government to PMG observations.
Improvements: During the year, improvements included the government’s completion of the renovation of the second floor of the Nubarashen prison.
According to the PMG, many of these renovations did not result in major improvements for most inmates. Prison monitors, however, no longer considered prison conditions to be life threatening, noting that a dramatic decrease in incarceration rates over the last few years meant the worst cells were no longer in use.
The government completed adaptations at Armavir, Vanadzor, and Artik penitentiaries to make them fully accessible for persons with mobility issues. The government procured braille books and listening devices for penitentiaries. The government also improved access to translation services by procuring 24-hour translation and interpretation services, including in sign language and up to 32 languages, as well as online when necessary.
In the first half of the year, 404 cameras were installed in Armavir penitentiary, the largest of the country’s 10 prisons, with EU funding. According to the Ministry of Justice, the improved monitoring aimed to reduce murders, suicides, gambling, violence, corruption, and other illegal activities in prison. On August 1, the Ministry of Justice provided toolkits for screening and risk assessment of suicide and self-harm immediately after intake in all prisons, in line with a newly adopted penitentiary code.
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.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
According to the criminal procedural code that went into force July 1, an investigative body must present individuals with a decision on their arrest or release and a list of their rights and duties within six hours of the moment that person is deprived of their freedom. The arrest may not last longer than 72 hours. Within 60 hours, the investigative body must file charges and obtain a detention warrant from a judge. If the arrested person is not detained by court decision within 72 hours from the moment of arrest, he or she is subject to immediate release. When considering the issue of detention, the court must also check the legality of the arrest. The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, to have legal representation, and to inform a person of their choosing regarding their location. 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 court detention decisions remained unpredictable, with different detention conditions placed on defendants in similar circumstances. According to some legal experts, however, the new criminal procedural code introduced stricter requirements for prosecutors to request and courts to approve pretrial detentions. The new code also introduced new prevention measures such as house arrest and administrative oversight that could potentially reduce the use of pretrial detention.
While there was a bail system, only 15 percent of bail requests were granted in 2021, according to official statistics. In contrast, courts granted 81 percent of government detention requests during the same year, according to official statistics.
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, more detainees were aware of their right to legal representation than in the past, especially in the capital. 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 outside the capital.
In its May 2021 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 the capital.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were multiple reports police arbitrarily arrested protesters during protests throughout the year (see section 2.b.).
For example, on September 16, police special forces forcefully detained three activists who were protesting against Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization in front of the Russian embassy in Yerevan. According to two of the activists – Arman Gharibyan, cochairman of the Human Right Power NGO, and Mher Karagyozyan, chairman of the Public Oversight NGO – police used violence during the detention, later in the car, and at the police precinct where they were taken.
On May 14, the Investigative Committee announced the detention of Avetik Chalabyan, an opposition figure, on charges of bribing university students to participate in daily antigovernment demonstrations in Yerevan. The charges were based on leaked audio of short fragments of his conversation with the head of the student council of the Armenian National Agrarian University that appeared on a progovernment website; no full recording of the conversation was released. His supporters claimed the fragments did not accurately reflect the full scope of the conversation. On July 12, Chalabyan was indicted. On July 27, Chalabyan was released when his pretrial detention period expired. On August 5, however, trial court judge Mnatsakan Martirosyan (see section 1.e.) ordered an extension of his pretrial detention by another three months, despite reports that Chalabyan did not appear to pose a flight risk. On August 31, the court of appeal allowed for Chalabyan’s release on bail in the amount of 15 million drams ($36,500).
Reports of arbitrary arrests that appeared election-related continued. Law enforcement officials arrested two municipal employees affiliated with the opposition coalition, Strong Community, in the Tavush region, on election day, September 25. These arrests followed the detention of four opposition-linked mayors in the Syunik region during and following the June 2021 parliamentary elections (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. The new criminal procedural code introduced strict limitations to the length of pretrial detention and the length of investigations. According to the code, the maximum term of detention in pretrial proceedings is four months for crimes of minor gravity, six months for crimes of medium gravity, 10 months for grave crimes, and 12 months for particularly grave crimes. 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.” Judges may apply detention or may prolong detention at each hearing for no longer than three months.
According to the new criminal procedural code, the maximum time a person may spend in detention may not exceed the term of imprisonment envisaged in the article under which they are indicted. Prosecutors regularly requested and received trial postponements from judges. Defense attorneys often requested postponements strategically to achieve dismissal of the case against their clients (defendants) due the expiration of the statute of limitations.
Observers continued to highlight the lack of mechanisms to ensure court system accountability for compliance with time standards or to obtain redress if a trial did not meet the reasonable timeframe requirement.
In February 2021, 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 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 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.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary was not viewed as independent or impartial due to its history of corruption and political influence, resistance to reform, and recent high-profile scandals. There were unconfirmed reports of attempts by the government to influence judges. The high case load, lack of public trust, and allegations of government pressure discouraged professionals from applying to judgeships.
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 continued to note 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. They further noted that the annual asset declaration checks of sitting judges were limited in scope and did not help to remove corrupt judges.
On June 20, the Chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), Ruben Vardazaryan, who had been suspended on charges of obstruction of justice, leaked a partial recording of his discussion with the progovernment acting chairman of the SJC Gagik Jhangiryan. In the secretly recorded conversation, which Vardazaryan said occurred in February 2021, Jhangiryan urged Vardazaryan to resign in exchange for not facing criminal charges. Vardazaryan was suspended and charged with obstruction of justice that April. Jhangiryan subsequently resigned, purportedly on health grounds. The case further undermined public trust in the judiciary.
Parliament appointed Karen Andreasyan to the SJC on October 6; the SJC appointed him as head on October 7. Until his appointment, he had been the justice minister and a ruling party member; citing these factors, civil society expressed concern regarding the impact of this appointment on the institution’s independence.
The SJC voted on November 21 to support Mnatsakan Martirosyan’s candidacy to serve as a judge on the newly established Specialized Anti-Corruption Court, despite the reportedly negative results of his integrity check conducted by the Corruption Prevention Commission. Many independent experts publicly criticized the SJC decision, citing scores of cases in which the judge appeared to have made judicial decisions based on a political agenda. A joint NGO statement termed the SJC’s vote “highly unacceptable and condemnable.” On December 30, the SJC removed Martirosyan from the list of candidates for the Anti-Corruption Court, purportedly based on Martirosyan’s withdrawal of his application. The SJC decision occurred a month after respected SJC member Grigor Bekmezyan relinquished his membership, citing a lack of institutional independence.
Human rights lawyers noted that some judges faced internal pressure from superiors, including the SJC, on some judicial decisions. Such pressure reportedly included suggesting their reputations or careers would be impacted and threatening selective punishment of minor misdemeanors. Some judges used the severely overloaded dockets to pressure rival interest groups by taking medical leave and leaving their colleagues an insurmountable caseload. Human rights 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 judicial reforms primarily offered ad hoc and temporary fixes rather than systemic reform.
Human rights lawyers also highlighted the role of faulty investigations and prosecutions on the side of law enforcement. According to observers, in many cases in which judicial decisions appeared politically motivated, faulty evidentiary submissions by the prosecutor’s office had precluded judges from making different decisions. Observers also noted that while bribery of judges was no longer a widespread problem, defense attorneys extorted money from clients by claiming it was for bribing a judge, thus further undermining trust in the system.
On July 6, parliament adopted changes to the judicial code allowing for disciplinary proceedings against judges who had ruled on cases in which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) subsequently ruled human rights violations occurred at some point during the process. Civil society organizations criticized the changes, pointing out such proceedings could be implemented selectively since multiple courts, investigators, and prosecutors could be held responsible for ECHR cases.
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. Public defenders were overburdened, and there was a lack of public defenders specialized in specific areas, such as trafficking in persons and domestic violence. A shortage of public defenders outside Yerevan sometimes led to denial of the right of defendants to an attorney of their choosing.
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. 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.
One of the judiciary’s most significant problems was the severe overload of judicial dockets at all levels due to a lack of judges. Other major factors contributing to the judicial caseload were a high level of appeals due to a lack of trust in the judiciary and prosecutors’ tactical approach to appealing acquittals and lower sentences.
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, many chose not to proceed given their mistrust of the judiciary and expected length of the judicial proceedings. Citizens also had the option of challenging in the 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. These lawyers reported that, as a result, lower courts continued to carry out the same legal mistakes.
According to one expert cited in Hetq’s February 2021 report, Delayed justice is justice denied, going to court could not be considered effective when, due to the length of the process, persons suffered more damage from going to court, even when they won the case, than they incurred in the alleged violation.
Citizens who exhaust domestic legal remedies may appeal cases involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the ECHR. A June 7 study by the Law Development and Protection Foundation analyzing the implementation of ECHR judgments revealed problems with legislation and law enforcement practices that led to the recurrence of similar violations and hindered the proper implementation of ECHR judgments by the government.
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 requirements.
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 judges authorized wiretaps and other surveillance requests from the NSS and police without the compelling evidence required by law.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
Sporadic incidents of fighting in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued, resulting in civilian casualties. After a November 2020 ceasefire, Azerbaijan and Armenia saw some of their most significant fighting in nearly two years on September 13-14 along the international border between the two countries and inside Armenia.
Complaints submitted by Armenia and Azerbaijan to the ECHR accusing each other of committing atrocities during fighting in 2020 and 2016 awaited the court’s ruling, as did Armenia’s complaints following Azerbaijan’s September attack.
Killings: Following intensive fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in mid-September, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions of Armenian soldiers in Azerbaijani custody.
On October 2, Azerbaijani social media accounts circulated a video that Human Rights Watch and the investigative journalism group Bellingcat reported appeared to depict the unlawful summary execution of at least seven Armenian soldiers by troops in Azerbaijani military uniform. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Bellingcat announced respectively on October 14 and October 20 they had verified the video as having been made in mid-September. HRW described the execution as a “war crime for which there needs to be accountability.”
Another video circulated by social media users beginning on October 11 appeared to depict three Armenian soldiers in the custody of Azerbaijani soldiers on the premises of a military post. The bodies of all three reportedly were later returned to the Armenian government. The Armenian armed forces and Armenian human rights lawyers separately identified the three soldiers.
A report released by Amnesty International on May 17, “Life in a Box”: Older People’s Experiences of Displacement and Prospects for Return in Azerbaijan, described antipersonnel land mines laid by Armenian forces on a massive scale during the 1990s. According to the Azerbaijani government, since the end of the 2020 fighting, 46 civilians had died and 234 had been injured by land mines in Azerbaijani territories previously controlled by Armenia. (See the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan).
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Videos were released shortly after the end of the intensive fighting in September that appeared to depict the bodies of three Armenian women service members who were victims of degrading and inhuman treatment. One of these videos depicted a nude and mutilated woman’s body placed above other corpses. While kicking her body, the Azerbaijani-speaking camera operator repeatedly directed abusive language towards the victim. A message had been written on her chest and stomach that read “YAŞMA” (a code name for Azerbaijani special forces).
According to the government, authorities initiated six criminal cases in 2020 to investigate actions of Armenian service members during the fall 2020 intensive fighting 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 in June 2021. The investigation remained underway at year’s end.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In connection with the September 13-14 fighting, there were reports that Azerbaijani forces struck emergency medical vehicles and hit other items required by the civilian population. According to the Ombudsperson’s Office, on September 13, Azerbaijani forces “targeted two ambulance vehicles with distinctive emblems.” One of the drivers was killed, according to the ombudsperson. The ombudsperson also reported fire from Azerbaijani forces hit vital civilian infrastructure, including high-voltage power lines in the Syunik region affecting 12 local communities and three hotels and a sanatorium in Jermuk, a tourist resort town in the Vayots Dzor region.
According to the Amnesty International report “Life in a Box,” Armenian forces committed and oversaw the widespread destruction or seizure of civilian property and infrastructure, including cultural property, in the regions of Azerbaijan they occupied in the 1990s.
According to the same report, during the 1990s, “the Armenian forces’ destruction of civilian objects and seizure of civilian property not required by military imperative… are violations of international humanitarian law and continue to undermine Azerbaijan’s efforts to resettle displaced populations in conflict-affected regions.”