Armenia experienced the most violent repression of recent years after the presidential elections, which were won on February 19, 2008 by Mr. Serzh Sarkisian with 52% of votes. The opposition did not recognise the results of the ballot at the end of February and organised demonstrations that were violently dispersed. These resulted in the deaths of ten people on March 1, 2008, eight of whom were demonstrators, as well as the arrest of hundreds of political opponents.1 The state of emergency, decreed from March 1 to 21, resulted in a temporary banon the independent media, a de jure suspension of the activities of NGOs and opposition parties, and the adoption of a new law on peaceful assembly that is particularly restrictive.2 Peaceful rallies continued to be prevented and even banned3 after the state of emergency was lifted, and the authorities continued to use violence against opposition activists as well as independent journalists. In addition, after the Ombudsman, an independent expert responsible for protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in Armenia, presented a report that was severely critical of the events of March 2008,4 the Ministry of Justice and the General Prosecutor contented themselves with making objections to the questions raised by the Ombudsman in his report, rather than responding to them. For his part, former President Robert Kocharian declared in the media that he had made the wrong choice in proposing an Ombudsman to the Assembly.5 In his report, the latter had also drawn a very critical picture of the economic and political situation in Armenia.6
Freedom of the media witnessed a considerable de facto regression in 2008. In October 2008, the Armenian Ombudsman denounced recent legislative amendments that introduced a moratorium on media licenses until mid-2011. These amendments made it impossible to create new – and difficult to develop the existing – independent radio and television channels,7 contravening the recent ECHR judgement concerning the A1+ independent television channel8 as well as a Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe dated June 2008, recommending that Armenia should "ensure an open, fair and transparent licensing procedure".9
Overall, the country remained marked by considerable corruption, the lack of independence of the judiciary and the recourse to torture by the police force. In the international arena, the Armenian and Turkish presidencies have been seen to move closer together for the first time. The first visit of the Turkish President to Yerevan on September 6 encouraged the hope that the two countries would become closer and, on November 2, the Presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation adopted a declaration calling for political resolution of the conflict.10
Pressure exerted on lawyers responsible for defending persons arrested during the events of March 2008
In 2008, the lawyers of hundreds of people arrested at the beginning of March and whose trials continued until the end of the year faced great difficulty in doing their job. The opening of criminal proceedings against lawyers who sought to obtain justice for the abuses and violations of human rights that occurred during the events of March 2008 seems in fact to have been used as a means of intimidating and obstructing their professional activities, insofar as Article 38 of the Code of Ethics of the Bar Association forbids a lawyer to carry out his or her profession if proceedings have been opened against them. For instance, on August 28, 2008, criminal proceedings were opened against Mr. Mushegh Shushanian, the lawyer of five people arrested and imprisoned during the March events. These proceedings were started on the grounds of "disrespect towards the court" under Article 343 of the Criminal Code, after Mr. Shushanian apparently accused the court of making political rulings during a hearing involving one of his clients. His lawyer's license, which was suspended after judicial proceedings were opened against him, was renewed on November 24 by the chamber of the Armenian Council of Armenian Lawyers. However, the prosecution of Mr. Shushanian continued at the end of 2008, and he incurred a fine of 100,000 drams (around 255 Euros).11
Impunity for attacks and threats against journalists defending human rights
In 2008, the intensification of media muzzling in Armenia resulted in the development of Internet-based activities of independent journalists, newspapers and information platforms. However, the lack of monitoring of investigations that were opened following different attacks against – and pressure put on – journalists put those who, amongst others, denounced corruption, in a particularly delicate position. On November 17, 2008, Mr. Edik Baghdasaryan, the President of the NGO "Investigative Journalists" and Editor of the on-line newspaper Hetq Online, which seeks to defend the independence of the investigative press and condemns corruption in Government circles, was violently attacked by three men in plain clothes and had to be taken to hospital. Government representatives demonstrated their support for him and affirmed that the Prosecutor was going to start an enquiry.12 As at the end of 2008, a criminal case had been initiated for "bodily harm of medium gravity" (Article 113 of the Criminal Code) that, however, had led to no result.
Increasing difficulty for NGOs in organising human rights events
During 2008, it has become more and more difficult for NGOs to organise conferences, discussions or film screenings on human rights issues. Indeed, most of the big hotels, cinemas and conference centres time and again refused to rent their premises to civil society organisations that condemned human rights violations committed by the Government. The Government reportedly put pressure on most of the big hotels not to rent out their rooms for "meetings of a political nature", pressure that had no legal basis and that would aim to hinder the holding of human rights-related events. At the beginning of October 2008, the hotel Congress initially agreed to host a day of conferences and discussions dealing with the country's major human rights problems, such as corruption and the violation of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, which was organised by the Partnership for Open Society.13 The hotel Congress then withdrew its agreement on the grounds that the event was of "political nature". The staff explained to the organisers that they would probably be turned down by the major hotels. In fact, the hotel Marriott, to which the Open Society Institute (OSI) made a similar request, had to apply for prior authorisation from the authorities. The hotel Congress finally authorised the event to be held on October 9, 2008, following OSI mobilisation.14
1 See Civil Society Institute (CSI).
2 See Resolution 1609 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) of April 17, 2008 condemning the adoption of this law.
3 In some cases the authorities argued that community administrative regulations, which imposed notification of the organisation of demonstrations of over 100 people, had been violated. In others, the organisers were confronted with refusal by the authorities or were forced to organise their demonstrations in locations imposed on them by the latter.
4 In his report, the Ombudsman noted a certain number of irregularities committed during and after the March 1 demonstration, such as, in particular, the lack of credible evidence permitting criminal proceedings to be opened against certain demonstrators, the issue of the proportionality of police action taken to end the rally, and the abuses committed in implementing the provisions of the decree imposing the state of emergency.
5 The current Ombudsman was proposed by the President of the Republic and appointed by the Assembly on July 8, 2006.
6 In his report, the Ombudsman also confirmed that distrust of public bodies, over-centralisation of power, the ineffective system of checks and balances, the lack of guarantees for the protection of civil rights and human rights, and the emergence of a privileged elite were all factors that encouraged a large part of society to demonstrate its dissatisfaction.
7 These amendments provided for the simple extension of existing media licenses until 2011, and that no call for tender for broadcasting frequencies would be made until this date.
8 On June 19, 2008, ECHR considered that the refusal to grant a license to the A1+ television channel violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and sentenced the Armenian Government to pay an amount of 30,000 Euros in damages to A1+. According to the Government, refusal to grant a license was necessary in Armenia's transition to compulsory digital broadcasting in 2012. A1+ was an extremely popular independent channel that had been closed down by the Government in 2002 and which had not been able to obtain a new license since then.
9 See PACE Resolution 1620, June 25, 2008.
10 The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has caused Armenia to be isolated, since its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan have been closed since the start of the fighting and Armenia has no diplomatic relationship with these two countries.
11 On December 19, his lawyers appealed against a ruling by the Kentron Court refusing to abandon the charges against him.
12 One of the presumed attackers of Mr. Edik Baghdasaryan gave himself up to the police on November 26, 2008.
13 The "Partnership for Open Society" is an initiative of more than sixty NGOs, coordinated by OSI.
14 See Joint Declaration of around a dozen NGOs, including the CSI, the Helsinki Committee for Armenia and the Transparency International Anti-Corruption Centre for Armenia, December 3, 2008.