US State Department publishes critical report on human rights in Armenia

By Harut Sassounian

On March 20, 2023, the US State Department issued its annual Country Reports on Human Rights for the year 2022. The report covered 198 countries and territories, including Armenia.

The Executive Summary of the report described the Parliamentary elections of 2021: “The elections were generally well managed, and contestants were able to campaign freely. The elections, however, were also characterized by intense polarization and marred by increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. The observation mission noted that ‘high levels of harsh, intolerant, inflammatory and discriminatory rhetoric in the period leading up to election day tainted the debate.’ Other shortcomings included incidents of pressure to attend campaign events, allegations of vote buying, blurring of the line between the ruling party and state, alleged misuse of administrative resources, inadequate campaign finance provisions, and the narrow standing allowed for submitting electoral complaints.”

Regarding various human rights abuses in Armenia, the State Department wrote that there were “credible reports of torture by members of the security forces; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems with judicial independence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting civil society figures and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor. The government took only limited steps to investigate and punish alleged abuses by former and current government officials and law enforcement authorities. There was no reported progress on government investigations of alleged abuses committed by Armenian armed forces or individuals during the 2020 hostilities.”

Regarding the 2022 attack by Azerbaijan on Armenia, the State Department wrote: “There were reports that Azerbaijani forces engaged in unlawful killings, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of Armenian forces in September.”

Under the subtitle, “Arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful or politically motivated killings,” the State Department expressed concerns “regarding noncombat deaths in the army and the failure of law enforcement bodies to conduct credible investigations into those deaths.”

The State Department then detailed further problems with elections: “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.”

There were also serious problems with the courts: “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.”

Section 2 of the State Department report covered: “Respect for Civil Liberties.” Under the subtitle, “Freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media,” the report stated that “the government generally respected this right, albeit with some restrictions.”

On the topic: “Violence and Harassment,” the report stated: “the local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported 14 cases of violence against 16 journalists during the year, most of which were at the hands of law enforcement and took place when the journalists were covering opposition protests.”

Regarding “Freedom of Peaceful Assembly,” the report stated: “while the government generally respected freedom of assembly, there were some restrictions, particularly disproportionate use of force by police against protesters, police brutality against protesters and journalists, and arbitrary detention of demonstrators…. On June 2, the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women issued a statement condemning violence by police officers against protesters, violent apprehensions, beatings, and humiliating treatment of protesters, including women…. On the morning of September 21, special police used force and detained 37 relatives of deceased service members, mostly women, who had gathered at the entrance of the military pantheon and were waiting for the arrival of the prime minister and other officials.”

The State Department’s lengthy report on Armenia critically, but accurately, described the various human rights abuses in great detail.

While the State Department does not rank countries on a scale, the US-based Freedom House rated Armenia on its Freedom Score as “Partly Free.” It is disappointing that five years after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power under the guise of establishing democratic rule, Armenia is still classified as a “Transitional Hybrid Regime.”

The only consolation for Armenia is that its two hostile neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, have much lower scores. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey are ranked by Freedom House on its Freedom Score as “Not Free.” In terms of democratic rule, Azerbaijan is classified as a “Consolidated Authoritarian Regime,” while the report on Turkey is still pending.

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