Human Rights Developments
The government=s crackdown on the political opposition in September 1996 cast a pall on human rights. Given the 1995 ban on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), Armenia=s largest opposition party, and fraudulent 1995 parliamentary elections, the 1996 crackdown accentuated the government=s intolerance of any real political opposition. The crackdown followed massive demonstrations on September 25 protesting election fraud in the September 22 presidential elections, in which incumbent Levon Ter-Petrossian defeated Vazgen Manukian by nine percentage points. Demonstrators marched to the parliament, where the Central Election Commission (CEC) was housed, and broke through gates to demand a recount. In the process they beat Speaker Babken Ararktsian and Deputy Speaker Ara Sahakian. In response, police brutally beat demonstrators and later arrested at least twenty-eight opposition leaders and supporters and CEC staffers. Among them, according to credible reports, Aghassi Arshakian, Kim Balayan, David Vartanian, Gagik Mgerdichian, and Aramad Zarkaryan, were brutally beaten; the latter required hospitalization for a fractured skull and broken nose and ribs. Attorneys for some of the detained, notably ARF leader Ruben Akopyan, were not permitted access to their clients.
In the wake of these events, police detained about 200 more individuals believed to have participated in the demonstration, President Ter-Petrossian banned public demonstrations and called in army troops to patrol Yerevan, and the Procurator General announced his intention to press charges against Vazgen Manukyan and seven other opposition leaders of attempting violently to overthrow the government. Police closed the offices of the National Democratic Union (Vazgen Manukian=s party), the National Self-Determination Association(a tiny opposition party), the Union of Constitutional Rights (a nationalist party), and Artsakh-Hayastan (an organization for the promotion of Karabakh issues). This crushing of opposition forces appeared to realize Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkissian=s September 25 warning that AAfter [the September 25] events, even if they win 100 percent of the votes, neither the Army nor the National Security and Interior Ministry would recognize such political leaders.@
Credible reports indicate that electoral violations did not occur in those electoral precincts monitored by international observers; however, in the majority of districts without international observers, no local observers were allowed, dead people and minors miraculously appeared on lists of voters, soldiers were bused in with orders to vote for Ter-Petrossian, and ballot boxes were reportedly stuffed. The elections failed to win the approval of the OSCE ODIHR Election Observer Mission, which concluded that Avery serious breaches@ in the voting raised concern Afor the overall integrity of the election process.@
The ARF remained banned throughout 1996, while the Ministry of Justice reviewed its request for reinstatement. At the latest hearing (September 12), the Ministry of Justice rejected the ARF=s registration papers, claiming that they lacked the requisite minutes of the ARF=s founding congress. As of this writing the process had not been completed.
The trial of Vahan Hohvannisian, the ARF chairman, and thirty other ARF members (also known as the ADro@ trial, after the name of an alleged secret armed section within the ARF that is charged with planning to overthrow the Armenian government) dragged on and, as of this writing, more than a year after its opening, had reached no conclusion. In a stunning display of bias, the Supreme Court judge presiding over the case accused two of the defense attorneys who had participated in a USAID trip to the U.S. of having been funded for the trip by the defendants= families.
The Armenian Ministry of Defense continued illegally to draft refugees from Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh into the army and refused to give draft-aged boys obligatory travel passes until they registered with their local draft board. Local draft boards on several occasions held hostage the parents of missing soldiers until the latter returned.
In April, the Ministry of Justice attempted to close Azg, the Ramkavar party daily, claiming that it needed to re-register under the auspices of the diaspora Ramkavar party, which is pro-Ter-Petrossian. The effort was unsuccessful.
The Right to Monitor
The Ministry of Justice refused to register the Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, basing its decision on its view that since there were no political prisoners in Armenia, such an organization was unnecessary.
The Role of the International Community
In 1996 European institutions sought to include Armenia as part of an all-Caucasus strategy. In May the Council of Europe=s committee of ministers voted in favor of having the Parliamentary Assembly consider Armenia=s application for membership. In response to the September events, the council dispatched a mission to Armenia in early October. The European Union had been scheduled to sign an interim agreement underlying a broad trade and cooperation agreement with Armenia. It postponed a trip to Yerevan, where the signature ceremony was to take place, citing Asecurity reasons.@
The United States
The second largest per-capita recipient of U.S. aid, Armenia received U.S.$85 million for FY 1996 under the Freedom Support Act, a 100 percent increase in assistance since 1995. The Clinton administration=s reaction to the September events marked an abdication of its responsibility toward human rights in a country in which it has a significant investment. The State Department=s initial, weak statement in response to the crackdown, which merely called on both sides to exercise restraint, demonstrated a feigned ignorance of government practices, exercised throughout the past two years, aimed at cutting the opposition out of mainstream politics. A later statement expressed Aconcern for the future of those arrested.@
The Clinton administration=s response is even more inexcusable, given the scrupulous work of the U.S. Embassy staff in Yerevan, which monitored the Dro trial, met with the relatives of opposition leaders arrested in the wake of the crackdown, and generally is extremely well informed on human rights violations.
Two high-level State Department visits were devoted to regional security and Nagorno Karabakh, and neither had a domestic politics or human rights component. The State Department did, however, acknowledge obvious cracks in Armenia=s democracy in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 and in a July 30 congressional hearing on the Caucasus. Additionally, on October 22, the Department of State called on the Armenian government to adhere to OSCE recommendations concerning the election law, but again failed to take the government to task for the brutal crackdown.