Since the mid-1990s, Armenian authorities have used administrative detention as a tool of repression, locking up protesters and activists at times of political tension. The 2003 presidential election and its aftermath mark the most sustained, extensive abuses in the last seven years. In February and March 2003, the police used the Code of Administrative Offenses, which sets out penalties for public order misdemeanors, to lock up dozens of opposition activists and supporters for periods of up to fifteen days. The police and courts applied the Code arbitrarily, claiming that opposition rallies and marches were "threats to public order" or "unauthorized," and that any of the tens of thousands of participants could be punished. The arrests disrupted the opposition candidate's campaign, and intimidated opposition supporters engaged in peacefully protesting the election result. They appeared aimed at stifling public criticism of the conduct of the vote-which was won by incumbent President Robert Kocharian, amid serious claims of election fraud.
The abuses stem both from ambiguities in the Code itself and from the actions of police and courts, which routinely ignore Code provisions that provide protections for defendants. The Code contains a number of vague terms and at times contradictory provisions that invite inconsistent application. Police officials and other authorities, for their part, often erroneously claim that those held on administrative offenses do not have the same rights as those charged under the criminal code. They routinely hold cursory court hearings, closed to the public, deny defendants access to legal counsel, and do not allow defendants any opportunity to call witnesses in their defense. These actions violate defendants' rights, established in the Code and in international human rights law, to a public trial, to legal counsel, to know the charges against them, and to call witnesses in their defense.1 Procedural violations, and a short-circuiting of the judicial process appear to be the norm in police and court application of administrative detention.2
Since independence in 1991, Armenia has enacted a number of legal reforms to protect due process rights. Failure to reform the Soviet-era administrative detention system to bring it into accord with prevailing international norms, however, is subverting this progress. This paper describes Armenia's administrative detention system, documents its use against opposition supporters, and details due process violations in its implementation.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Armenian government to ensure that law enforcement and judicial authorities do not arbitrarily detain and intimidate political activists in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and constitutional referendum, scheduled for May 25. Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to make reform of the system of administrative detention a part of its relationship with the government of Armenia. Human Rights Watch also urges the Armenian government to take serious measures to eradicate the abuse of administrative detention. Such measures should include:
- Reform of the administrative courts to ensure their genuine independence from the law enforcement agencies and the executive, and to ensure that they protect due process guarantees contained in the Code of Administrative Offenses (or its successor law), the Constitution, and Armenia's international human rights obligations.
- Reform of the Code of Administrative Offenses to make it fully consistent with the framework of current Armenian law, removing anachronisms, and clearly relating the substance of administrative offenses to existing laws or normative acts. This would reduce opportunities for arbitrariness in determining what constitute administrative offenses.
- Legal reform to ensure that the police may not use administrative arrest as a license for arbitrary and incommunicado detention. Its time limit should be set clearly at three hours, as certain language in the Code stipulates, rather than being open-ended, as other Code language makes possible. The obligation for police to maintain a transparent system of registering all detainees should be legislated unambiguously, and vigorously enforced. Police officers who fail to do so should be held accountable.
- Introduction of a clear right to appeal judicial decisions regarding "administrative" detention, and the removal of practical barriers to its realization. A procedure for the conduct of appeal hearings should be introduced, and a right of further appeal to the Court of Cassation should be introduced, as provided for in the civil and criminal procedure codes. The right of appeal must in practice protect the individual's interest in liberty, in that the defendant may both immediately challenge detention and have a genuine opportunity to secure conditional release pending the final decision of the appeal.
- Legislation or normative acts regulating public demonstrations and marches should be introduced. Any such law should set out a procedure for challenging denial of permission.
1 See Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
2 Administrative detention is customarily understood to mean detention ordered by a non-judicial body. However, in this case the detention is determined by a court. The same due process guarantees afforded criminal defendants under Article 14 of the ICCPR and Article 6 of ECHR also apply in such cases. Although the Armenian practice in most respects conforms to judicially determined detention, for the sake of simplicity and clarity we shall continue to refer to it as administrative detention throughout this document.