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President Levon Ter-Petrossian’s resignation in February radically changed Armenia’s political landscape, but the government’s human rights practices remained poor. The Armenian government’s human rights record in 1998 was marred by its failure to prosecute election-related violence, physical abuse of conscripts in the Armenian army and in pretrial detention, and by its willingness to condone religious intolerance.

President Ter-Petrossian left office after Armenian defense minister Vasgen Sarkisyan called for his resignation and forty members of parliament quit the bloc that supported the president to join the Yerkrapah faction. The Yerkrapah faction is associated with the Yerkrapah Battalion, a conservative veterans’ organization led by Sarkisyan, which was linked to violent attacks in April 1995 on twelve non-apostolic religious groups, mostly Christian sects other than the Armenian Orthodox Church. Throughout the past three years, the Armenian government failed to bring to justice any of the perpetrators of these violent attacks. The Yerkrapah Battalion also reportedly ransacked a human rights library in July 1997.

Ter-Petrossian’s forced resignation was related to his willingness to compromise in negotiations on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict to allow the enclave to retain effective independence, but technically remain part of Azerbaijan. Snap presidential elections were called on March 16 in accordance with Armenia’s constitution, with a second round of voting on March 30. Former Prime Minister Robert Kocharian was declared the winner. The OSCE election observers’ final report found both rounds to have been marred by extensive fraud, and flatly stated that the final round did not meet OSCE standards. The report noted that monitors witnessed ballot stuffing, discrepancies in the vote count, a large presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations, and intimidation of voters, election workers, and even the international observers themselves.

After the elections, the government claimed to have prosecuted some violent incidents during the elections. But Human Rights Watch learned that many organized groups that participated in ballot stuffing and violence were not prosecuted. For example, on March 16, a group of approximately thirty men entered a Yerevan polling station and in front of numerous witnesses beat two candidate proxies who protested the group’s tampering with the ballot box.

A September 1997 amendment to the law on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations further tightened restrictions by prohibiting financing for religions with spiritual centers outside the country. The law, originally adopted in 1991, precludes proselytizing by religions other than the official Armenian Orthodox Church and is clearly intended to hinder the activities of religions other than the official Armenian Orthodox Church.

The law provides for a Committee for Religious Affairs, under the Council of Ministers, with broad and vague powers to register religious organizations. The Jehovah’s Witness organization, whose adherents were among those attacked in April 1995, continued to be refused registration due to the authorities’ view that the organization opposes compulsory military service. Members of the government human rights committee and some nongovernmental organizations supported the ban on the group’s registration. Amnesty International has declared several adherents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, convicted for failure to perform military service, as prisoners of conscience.

Physical abuse and poor conditions plagued the Armenian army, resulting in the deaths of several conscripts. They include the death on April 7 of Vahagan Alaverdyan, an eighteen-year-old resident of Yerevan drafted into the Armenian army in November 1997. Alaverdyan’s family stated that they identified him at the Khojaly Military Hospital in Nagorno Karabakh, covered with extensive bruises on the chest, stomach, and back. They further accused officers and other members of the military unit in which he served in Nagorno Karabakh of beating him to death. The Armenian government routinely denies that it conscripts troops and requires them to serve in Nagorno Karabakh.

Officers remained largely unaccountable for abuse in the army. In one case, a nongovernmental organization brought the beating of two soldiers to the attention of authorities. On August 8, the Ministry of Defense responded that the officers had been reprimanded and threatened with expulsion from the Armenian army. However, such a sanction is highly unlikely to be effective in preventing abuse. Nongovernmental organizations reported that Ministry of Defense personnel continued to take family members hostage in order to secure the return of draft-evaders.

The procuracy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Security showed an insufficient commitment to impartial investigation and prosecution of credible allegations of physical abuse in police lock-ups and pretrial detention. For example, police in the Massis district police station and in Yerevan Isolator Number 1 allegedly beat Hamlet Heloyan, an ethnic Yezid suspected of thefts, after he was arrested in March 1998.

In June, a court sentenced four policemen from the third and fourth precincts in Gumri to eight years of imprisonment in relation with the August 1997 death in custody of a suspect. The police were convicted on charges of abuse of office and assisting in a suicide, even though photographic evidence showed extensive evidence of severe beatings on the victim’s body.





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