Republic of Armenia

Head of state: Robert Kocharian
Head of government: Aram Sarkisian (replaced Vazgen Sarkisian in November, who replaced Armen Darbinian in June)
Capital: Yerevan
Population: 3.8 million
Official language: Armenian
Death penalty: retentionist
1999 treaty ratifications/signatures: Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

At least nine conscientious objectors to military service were imprisoned during the year. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment continued, and at least one person was said to have died in custody as a result of a severe beating. Three death sentences were passed during 1999, and 31 men were under sentence of death at the end of the year, although the moratorium on executions continued.


A new government was formed following parliamentary elections in May. The elections were regarded as less seriously flawed than previous ones: the Council of Europe, which Armenia has applied to join, concluded that the vote was "an important step" towards meeting its standards. Further government changes occurred in October, after a group of five armed men opened fire on senior officials in the parliamentary chamber. A total of eight men died, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, Speaker of Parliament Karen Demirchian, and the Speaker's two deputies.

Prisoners of conscience

Young men continued to face imprisonment because their conscience led them into conflict with the law that makes military service compulsory for young males, and offers them no civilian alternative. During 1999 at least six religious believers were sentenced to imprisonment, one of whom was given his second term for the same offence of refusing call-up papers. At least three others, including Karen Voskanian, continued serving terms imposed earlier.

Various officials mentioned moves towards drawing up plans for a civilian alternative service for conscientious objectors, but AI was not aware of any concrete proposals or timetable for a draft law in parliament.

  • In January 1998, knowing he was liable for call-up from the age of 18, Gagik Ohanian wrote to his local conscription office in Yerevan. He explained why, as a Jehovah's Witness, he was unable to carry out military service, but expressed his willingness to perform an alternative, civilian service. Gagik Ohanian was apprehended at his home in December 1998, reportedly by officials in civilian clothes who showed no documents, and was forcibly conscripted into a military unit in the Vajots region. There he was reportedly beaten by a senior officer when he refused to wear a military uniform. The visible injuries he sustained reportedly led military police in the city of Baik, into whose custody the military unit wished to transfer Gagik Ohanian, to refuse to accept him. In June 1999 Gagik Ohanian was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for evading military service, under Article 257 of the Criminal Code.

Torture and ill-treatment

Allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody continued, including at least one case in which a detainee is said to have died as a result.

In February President Kocharian met a group of mothers whose sons had died as a result of violence in the army. He strongly condemned brutal hazing (bullying and humiliation) in the armed forces and pledged greater efforts to combat such crimes. At the same meeting the Military Procurator gave an assurance that many closed cases would be subject to review, and that 80 officers had been prosecuted the previous year for illegal actions. These included 34 convictions for abuse of power and two for causing suicides. Many families have complained that army deaths attributed to suicide have in fact been as a result of injuries inflicted during hazing, and that army officers and others have colluded in covering up the real cause of death.

  • Senior military officer Artush Ghazarian was reportedly beaten so severely by law enforcement officials that he died in custody on the night of 30 September. He had been in detention since mid-September, charged with bribery. Artush Ghazarian was said to have been held at a civilian police station in the city of Vanadazor, but to have been taken from there for interrogation to a military police station where the beatings took place. An autopsy is said to have revealed injuries consistent with beatings, and a number of officials were detained.

Death penalty

Addressing the UN Human Rights Committee in October 1998, Armenia's representative stated that the death penalty would be abolished as of 1 January 1999, when a new criminal code was adopted. The death penalty would be replaced by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. However, by the end of 1999 the draft code, which received its first parliamentary reading in April 1997, had still not received final approval from legislators. In February, speaking to an AI delegate in Yerevan, the Minister of the Interior reported that at that time there were around 30 men on death row. Three death sentences were passed during 1999, and 31 men were under sentence of death at the end of the year. No commutations by the President were reported, and no executions took place.

Among those who faced a possible death sentence during 1999 were those accused of planning or taking part in the October shootings in parliament. They included the five men who reportedly opened fire in the parliamentary chamber: Nairi Unanian, his brother Karen Unanian, their uncle Vram Galstian and two others named as Derenik Bezhdanian and Eduard Grigorian. These five were charged with terrorism (Article 61 of the criminal code) and premeditated murder (Article 99), both of which have a maximum sentence of death. AI welcomed President Kocharian's public assurances that the men would be given a fair trial, and urged the President to exercise his constitutional authority and commute to imprisonment all pending death sentences, as well as any future ones passed prior to abolition, in line with parliament's intention to remove the death penalty from the statute book.

Update on legislation

Failure to adopt the draft criminal code meant that, among other things, consensual homosexual acts between adult males remained criminalized, although no information on any prosecutions was available. A proposal to establish the office of ombudsperson in Armenia, put forward in 1998 by the newly-established presidential Human Rights Commission, also did not come to fruition.

AI country reports and visits


  • Armenia: "Respect my human dignity" – Imprisonment of conscientious objectors (AI Index: EUR 54/006/99)


An AI delegate visited Armenia in February and discussed issues of concern with various officials.

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