(This report covers the period January-December 1997)

At least five men were reportedly jailed for refusing on grounds of conscience to perform compulsory military service. Over 40 political prisoners faced criminal proceedings that appeared to fall short of international fair trial standards. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention continued. At least three men were sentenced to death. No executions took place.

Tension with neighbouring Azerbaijan flared up in April after a number of cross-border incidents in which soldiers from both sides were reported killed. President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart both reaffirmed their commitment to a cease-fire.

In April parliament passed in its first reading a new draft criminal code which abolished the death penalty for all crimes, whether in time of peace or war, and replaced this punishment with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. However, the new code had not become law by the end of the year.

Military service remained compulsory for men aged between 18 and 27, and the lack of any civilian alternative placed conscientious objectors under threat of imprisonment. At least five men were imprisoned for refusing conscription on grounds of conscience. John Martirosyan, a Jehovah's Witness, submitted a statement in March explaining his religious objection to military service. In June his father went to the local enlistment office in Yerevan, the capital, to resubmit this statement, and was reportedly detained there illegally for a day in an attempt to force his son to present himself for military service. In September John Martirosyan was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment for "evading regular call-up to active military service" under Article 75 of the Criminal Code.

Allegations continued that the trial of a senior member of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Vahan Ovanessian, together with 30 others accused of attempting an armed coup (see Amnesty International Report 1997), fell short of international fair trial standards. Several witnesses testified, as many defendants had earlier, that they had been beaten or that their families had been threatened in order to coerce them into giving evidence against the accused. For example, Aghavni Karapetian, wife of defendant Gnel Ovanessian, testified in February that Interior Ministry employees from the Mashtots district of Yerevan had beaten her severely and that she subsequently miscarried. She said that her two sisters and disabled brother were also beaten. The trial ended in December: 28 defendants were convicted, including Tigran Avetissian, who was sentenced to death.

Similar allegations of ill-treatment were also made in a series of trials linked with events in September 1996, when opposition protests over disputed presidential elections turned violent. Twelve people stood trial in six separate hearings, and at least eight claimed that they had been beaten or threatened in order to extract confessions. At the first trial which began in February before the Supreme Court, for example, Abet Petrosian withdrew the testimony he had given in pre-trial detention, claiming that he had been beaten and that threats had been made against his wife and mother to force a confession. His four fellow defendants made similar al-legations, although these were reportedly not investigated by the court as the judge considered there was insufficient proof (Abet Petrosian said that he was unwilling to name those involved in his ill-treatment for fear of reprisals against his family). The defendants were convicted but, like others subsequently sentenced in the series of trials, were given suspended sentences or released under an amnesty.

There were also allegations of torture and ill-treatment of criminal suspects. Manvel Virabyan, aged 17, was detained in April at his home in Yerevan by police investigating a robbery. He died in custody several days later, allegedly as a result of severe beatings and ill-treatment. His body was reportedly unrecognizable to his family. His mother also alleged that she dropped her initial protests when officials threatened another son.

At least three men were sentenced to death during the year, all for premeditated, aggravated murder: Tigran Avetissian (see above), and Arakel Gabrielian and Artur Kirakossian, who were convicted in October. At least one man had his sentence reduced on appeal. Armen Grigorian, one of three men sentenced to death after a political trial in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997) had his sentence reduced to 15 years' imprisonment by the Supreme Court in July. No presidential commutations were reported, and by the end of the year there were at least 25 men on death row. No executions took place, as in previous years.

Amnesty International urged the authorities to release immediately and unconditionally all those imprisoned solely for refusing military service on grounds of conscience, and to enact legislation creating an alternative civilian service of non-punitive length together with a fair procedure in law for implementing it

Amnesty International called for a judicial review of all political cases in which fair trial standards had allegedly not been met, and urged that all reports of ill-treatment be investigated impartially and comprehensively, with the results made public and those responsible brought to justice. Amnesty International also sought information on what steps had been taken to implement the recommendations made by the UN Committee against Torture in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997). Commenting on allegations of ill-treatment, the new Procurator General told Amnesty International in November that he was constantly implementing measures to deal with the issue of torture, including by visiting places of detention; by setting up a confidential telephone line at the Armenian procuracy for those who wish to report abuses; and by issuing instructions to procuracy offices throughout the country to conduct objective, comprehensive criminal investigations of human rights abuses within strict time limits. With regard to specific allegations raised in political trials (see above), he stated that all the defendants had access to lawyers and that none had lodged complaints about their treatment at the time it was alleged to have happened.

The organization consistently urged that the death penalty be abolished and that all pending death sentences be commuted.

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