Human Rights Developments

The investigation of the 1999 murder of the prime minister, Vasken Sarkisyan, and seven others in the Armenian parliament dominated the political scene in 2000, with fierce accusations of bias. Infighting among government officials over the investigation sapped efforts to address the country's stagnating economy and poor human rights record.

The military procuracy led the investigation of the October 27, 1999, shootings in the parliament. The arrest of a member of President Robert Kochariyan's staff, Aleksan Harutunyan, prompted accusations that the military procuracy investigators, allied with associates of the former prime minister, were attempting to use the investigation to implicate and oust the president. Charges against Harutunyan were later dropped.

President Kochariyan struggled to maintain his grip on power, coopting some senior government officials who had been linked to the slain prime minister, while reshuffling others. In May, the minister of defense was replaced with a close Kochariyan associate, Serge Sarkisyan.

Some of the suspects detained during the investigation said they were ill-treated in custody. Detainees were also reportedly denied access to lawyers and family members. Nairi Hunaniyan, the chief suspect in the shootings, retracted testimony he said he was coerced into signing after being physically abused, and on July 25 denounced his state-appointed lawyer. Armenian National Television Deputy Director Harutiun Harutunyan also stated that he was subjected to physical abuse while in detention. Harutunyan was arrested in January after being accused of participation in the crime, but later released.

On March 22 several gunmen attempted to assassinate Arkady Ghukasian, who held the title of president of the ethnic Armenian separatist Nagorno Karkbakh region in Azerbaijan. After the attempt, a number of individuals were arrested, including the enclave's former defense minister, Samvel Babayan, his brother Karen Babayan, and several of Babayan's bodyguards. Babayan and other defendants reported that they were physically abused in custody and deprived of access to lawyers. On March 28, Nagorno Karabakh authorities ordered journalist Vaghram Aghauaniyan to serve one year of imprisonment for libel after dubious proceedings in which Aghauaniyan alleged he was denied the right to call witnesses.

Although newspapers in Yerevan reprinted Aghauaniyan's article alleging misconduct on the part of the Nagorno Karabakh prime minister, Armenia lacked a vigorous independent press. A record of physical assaults on journalists for which the government had failed to bring perpetrators to account, as well as spurious libel suits, had fostered a climate of self-censorship among journalists. On June 6, journalist Vaghan Gukasiyan said that he was summoned to the Ministry of Interior and severely beaten by Hrach Harutunyan, head of the criminal investigation department, in retaliation for a paper he wrote that was critical of Harutunyan and the investigation into the October 1999 parliamentary shootings. On July 8, local authorities reportedly removed copies of Azg newspaper from newsstands because it contained an article critical of them.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights monitoring groups functioned, but there was a lack of vigorous and open public debate about important human rights issues.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child said in January that there were significant gaps in the preparation of Armenia's initial report to the committee. The committee noted that cooperation with nongovernmental organizations in preparation of the report had been limited and recommended that civil society be included in all stages of implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The committee also expressed concern over a broad range of issues, including children living and working on the streets and about allegations that young children had been conscripted into the armed forces. The committee reiterated concerns previously expressed by the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women that the government has failed to acknowledge and address the issue of domestic violence.

The committee also expressed serious concern regarding the absence of a system of juvenile justice in Armenia, and in particular the length and conditions of pretrial detention, limited access to visitors for children detained prior to trial, the often disproportionate length of sentences in relation to the seriousness of offences, the frequent detentions of juveniles with adults, and the absence of facilities for the physical and psychological rehabilitation and social reintegration of juvenile offenders.

In May, the U.N. Committee against Torture had been set to examine Armenia's second periodic report about implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but one month prior to the meeting, the Armenian government canceled its appearance.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

In July, the OSCE chairperson-in-office, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, traveled to Yerevan officially to open an OSCE office. The office had actually begun activities in February. Ferrero-Waldner stated that economic development in Armenia could only be enhanced if there was significant progress toward a political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Negotiations to resolve the conflict had been ongoing, with no tangible results, for the past several years under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group.

The new OSCE office engaged in a number of projects, including review of legislation and administration of the electoral framework in line with recommendations made by OSCE election observers, training of prison staff, public awareness of human rights, and a round table on tolerance for ethnic and religious groups.

Council of Europe

On June 28, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted favorably on Armenia's accession to the organization, but full membership as of this writing still required a favorable Committee of Ministers decision. Although the Parliamentary Assembly maintained that progress had been made, the long list of conditions that Armenia would be required to meet after accession served only to highlight just how far the country was from establishing the legal framework necessary to guarantee the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The Parliamentary Assembly's conditions included adoption of a number of new laws, including on the media, on political parties, on nongovernmental organizations, on the establishment of an ombudsman office, on the civil service, and on alternative military service. The assembly required that amendments to the current law on local authorities be made to give them greater independence. With regard to the court system, it required that independence of the judiciary be fully guaranteed, that the Judicial Council be reformed to ensure its independence, and that access to the Constitutional Court be granted to individuals in certain instances. It also stipulated as a condition the transfer of certain detention facilities from the responsibility of the Ministries of Internal Affairs and National Security to the Ministry of Justice.

European Union

The Second Annual E.U.-Armenia Cooperation brought E.U. praise for human rights improvements and promises of continued E.U. assistance aimed at facilitating resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and further improvement in democratization and human rights.

United States

In May a U.S.-Armenia Task Force on Economic Reform held its first meeting. At its initial meeting, the task force said that it would concentrate its efforts on private sector development, combating corruption, and Armenia's energy needs. The administration requested renewed foreign assistance, stated that the U.S. supported assistance to help transform Armenia into a democracy based on the rule of law with an active civil society and free markets, at peace with its neighbors and integrated in the world economy. Officials argued that Armenia would thus be less likely to engage in armed conflict with Azerbaijan or to disrupt the export of hydrocarbons from the Caspian Basin. Secure routes for oil and gas transit from the region, and through Turkey, were a key U.S. policy concern in the region.

International Financial Institutions

In September, the World Bank approved the equivalent of U.S. $11.4 million for judicial reform in Armenia. The project, with the aim of assisting in the development of an independent, accessible, and efficient judiciary, was a welcome attempt at improving legal institutions that were woefully incapable of addressing the country's abysmal human rights practices. It included assistance in the area of court administration, infrastructure rehabilitation, training of judges and court personnel, improved enforcement of court decisions, and increased access to legal information.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.