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Human Rights Practices in Armenia

Letter to Armenian President Kocharian

I write to express our alarm regarding the results of a recent assessment carried out by Human Rights Watch investigators into human rights practices in Armenia.

I write to express our alarm regarding the results of a recent assessment carried out by Human Rights Watch investigators into human rights practices in Armenia. In 1996, Armenia applied for membership in the Council of Europe, an organization whose primary role is to strengthen democracy, human rights and the rule of law throughout its member states. Armenia's application to the Council is currently under review, and we are deeply concerned by our recent findings that show that the government is falling well below the standards expected for membership. We believe that the widespread pattern of violations that we found in Armenia -- combined with the climate of impunity for their perpetrators -- is indicative of the government's lack of commitment to the rule of law.

Our concerns include:

  • Rampant physical abuse, beatings and torture of conscripts in the Armenian army that has led to numerous deaths;
  • police abuse of detainees in pretrial detention;
  • legislation that codifies violations of freedom of religion and government-sponsored religious intolerance;
  • arbitrary detention of journalists and harassment of the media; and
  • failure to prosecute incidents of election-related violence and ballot tampering during the March presidential elections.

Given our recent findings, we believe that Armenia's ascension to the Council of Europe is premature until such time as the government takes concrete and significant steps to improve human rights practices, and we intend to recommend to the Parliamentary Assembly that it take no further action on Armenia's membership application to give the government sufficient time to address the concerns detailed below and to demonstrate that it is fully committed to improving human rights protections both in law and in practice.

Rampant physical abuse, beatings and torture of conscripts in the Armenian army.

During a recent in-depth investigation into conditions in the Armenian army, Human Rights Watch found that throughout the past three years officers and conscripts have been responsible for beating, torturing and shooting to death new conscripts. We found a persistent pattern by military procuracy investigators of declaring many such peacetime deaths as suicides or accidental deaths despite significant evidence -- both forensic and photographic -- that the deaths were murders. Senior defense ministry personnel are highly reluctant to hold senior unit officers accountable for such deaths; in some cases, junior officers have been prosecuted, but the convicted officers were frequently released by amnesty shortly after sentencing.

Armenian nongovernmental organizations estimate that approximately 200 conscripts died annually in 1996, 1997 and 1998, despite the cease-fire governing the Nagorno Karabakh conflict signed in May 1994. Human Rights Watch considers this estimate credible, and believes that actual figures are very likely to be higher. Some of these deaths are a result of ongoing hostilities in the conflict zone; however, the numerous deaths throughout the past three years in units away from the conflict zone, and deaths ruled suicides in units in the conflict zone, indicate a pattern of persistent human rights violations for which authorities are unwilling to hold officers accountable.

The Ministry of Defense's policy of declaring statistics on peacetime deaths a military secret, and instructing journalists not to identify units where deaths have occurred in published reports, has contributed to a climate of impunity for officers responsible for abuse in their units. Further, Defense Ministry officials' refusal to make the code of conduct for military personnel available to the public contributes to lack of discipline in units, fosters a climate of lawlessness in which abuses take place, and hinders judges, investigators, and lawyers from holding officers accountable. The Ministry of Defense has refused requests from nongovernmental organizations, defense lawyers and others concerned with conditions in the army to make public this document. We are particularly alarmed by this development because the code, which details appropriate conduct for military personnel, disciplinary infractions and punishments, and due process during investigations, was readily available to those serving in the Soviet Army in almost all military units and even in most public libraries. As such, we view this lack of transparency as indicative of the government's lack of commitment to guaranteeing a fundamental element of rule of law -- citizens' access to the laws that govern them.

Conscripts interviewed during the course of our investigation stated that physical abuse and beatings of new conscripts in the Armenia army is systematic and widespread by officers and by older conscripts. One twenty-year-old Armenian citizen who recently completed military service in Martakert military unit 49971, inside the former Nagorno Karabakh oblast, told Human Rights Watch that physical abuse by officers is rampant even for such minor offenses as being late to meals, failure to salute an officer, and talking during sleeping hours. For instance, he described witnessing an officer beating a fellow conscript in this unit so severely for failing to salute that the conscript's arm was broken. In addition, this former conscript and numerous other conscripts stated that officers routinely ignore severe beatings of new conscripts by older soldiers, and that new inductees are frequently pressured and physically abused by older conscripts and officers to compel them to perform humiliating tasks and to extort money and personal belongings from them. No conscript or family member interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed confidence that complaints about such abuses to officers would be investigated and acted upon, and in many cases, expressed great fear that complaints would merely lead to further abuse.

In unit 59015, located in Zod, Vardenis province, officers have been alleged to have been engaged in systematized theft of conscripts' belongings and packages from home, and family members stated that one junior officer was beaten to death for allegedly refusing to participate in the scheme. Following the man's death, family members told Human Rights Watch that they became aware of ten subsequent deaths in the unit throughout a period of a two and half years. During this period, the family repeatedly sought the assistance of senior defense ministry staff, the military procuracy and the president to sanction officers in the unit, to no avail. Officials' persistent failure to act on the family's complaints in this case illustrates the government's unwillingness to act to curb abuses, and contributed to a climate in which the subsequent deaths in the unit occurred. Two officers from the unit are now awaiting trial in Yerevan for murder and participation in the scheme, but to our knowledge the unit's senior commander has not been disciplined or sanctioned for failing to investigate the family's complaints and implementing measures to alter the abusive conditions in the unit.

Another family told Human Rights Watch that they received a letter in November 1997, requesting that they send money to their son, a conscript serving in military unit 34153 in Askeron, Nagorno Karabakh. Family members reported that in a separate note accompanying the letter, the draftee indicated that he had been compelled to make the request and that the family should not send money. This conscript's death in the unit was ruled a suicide on January 3, 1998, despite evidence on his body of a severe beating. Human Rights Watch is aware of five other deaths ruled as suicides or accidental deaths in this unit, including the death on April 7, 1998, of Vahagan Alaveridian, an eighteen-year-old resident of Yerevan drafted in November 1997. Mr. Alaverdian's family reported that after Armenian military officials called them to Hojaly military hospital in Nagorno Karabakh, they identified the body of their son covered in extensive bruises on the chest, stomach, and back, and they alleged that officers and other members of the military unit in which he served are responsible for beating him to death.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch has serious concerns regarding conditions in places of detention under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense, including stockades in military units and military police holding cells. One twenty-four-year-old former detainee who declared himself a conscientious objector told Human Rights Watch that in December 1996, he was detained at his Yerevan home by conscription commission officials, and forcibly conscripted into military unit 27229 in Noyamberian, despite his statements that he was unable to do military service for religious reasons. He reported that he was then taken from the Noyamberian military unit to the Echivan military police department, where he was held in a weapons storage room of approximately two-by-three meters in size for two and a half months along with eleven other detainees, from January to mid-March 1997. He reported that this room had no toilet, and that guards frequently denied requests to use bathroom facilities. During his entire stay in this facility, he was not allowed to bathe, and had only infrequent access to drinking and washing water. He further reported that food was provided only intermittently at two to three day intervals, usually by soldiers who themselves served at the facility and shared their rations with detainees. We consider such treatment to be cruel, inhuman and degrading, and as such in violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 19 of Armenia's Constitution.

Draftees who had declared themselves conscientious objectors on religious grounds told Human Rights Watch that they and their family members are routinely subject to harassment and even physical abuse by police, district and regional conscription commission officials, and other Ministry of Defense personnel. We note that due to the lack of an alternative to military service, Amnesty International has designated a number of prisoners currently serving for refusal to perform military service on religious grounds as prisoners of conscious.

For several years, we have received alarming reports that Ministry of Defense personnel arbitrarily detain and hold hostage family members of draftees who fail to report for callups. Notably, this practice was cited in the U.S. State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997. For example, one draftee told Human Rights Watch that in July 1997, Yerevan conscription commission officials detained his mother, took her to a military unit attached to the Ministry of Defense's headquarters on Ashtarag highway, and held her for four days in an attempt to coerce her son into reporting for military duty. The draftee's wife and mother-in-law told Human Rights Watch that they were detained and held hostage in the same military unit for one day, and were freed only after repeated reminders to the unit's officers that at the time of their detention they had not been allowed to place their minor children in an adult's care and that they were at home without supervision.

Reports of widespread physical abuse of detainees -- including children -- in pre-trial detention

We are alarmed by reports of rampant physical abuse in pretrial detention facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Security and by the failure to prosecute those responsible for it. For instance, police officials of the Massis District police station and Yerevan Investigative Isolator No. 1 reportedly severely beat Hamlet Heloyan, after his arrest in March 1998, in an effort to coerce him into signing confession regarding his participation in a series of thefts. Reports of systematic beatings of detainees in other facilities include a former detainee of the Gumri Investigative Isolator who told Human Rights Watch that on June 1, 1996, he witnessed the arrival from Yerevan of Ministry of Internal Affairs Criminal Investigative Department staff, who proceeded to summarily pull detainees from their cells and severely beat them over a period of several hours. He reported that the beatings were in retaliation for the previous escape of two prisoners from the facility.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch has received numerous allegations that police officials at the Yerevan Main City Police Department routinely beat children at the facility who are detained for petty crimes. For example, one seventeen-year-old boy interviewed by a Human Rights Watch investigator stated that in November 1997, he was detained by Yerevan city police officers, taken to the Yerevan Main City Police Department, and severely and systematically beaten for several hours, after which his head was repeatedly forced into a bucket of water in an attempt to coerce him into signing testimony against others. He stated that five police officials systematically carried out the beating, including Nelly Duriyan, the head of the Yerevan Main City Police Department's unit for children. Human Rights Watch investigator found highly credible allegations that children detained in other facilities in the Yerevan metropolitan area, including in Nornok and Erebuni police station, have been beaten by police.

The procurator's office has shown an insufficient commitment to impartially investigating and prosecuting cases of physical abuse, which has contributed to the climate of impunity for police abuse in Armenia. Despite three meetings between procuracy officials and Human Rights Watch representatives, and a written request, Deputy Procurator General Haratiyan, whose responsibilities include oversight of the police, refused to provide information regarding the prosecution of abusive police officials. This lack of transparency contributes to the widespread lack of public confidence in the procuracy and the police in Armenia. We are particularly alarmed about this situation because of the great reluctance that victims of torture in Armenia have expressed to Human Rights Watch to make complaints to officials, and view it as fostering the current climate in which witnesses and victims greatly fear retaliation and retribution.

To the best of our knowledge, very few complaints against the police have been prosecuted, and in such cases the police have been charged under articles of the criminal code that are vague and not appropriate to the seriousness of the crimes, such as abuse of office. In one case we are aware of in which police officials have been tried for deaths in police custody, these officials have been tried under articles that have allowed the officials to be freed by amnesty after serving limited sentences. In June 1998, a Yerevan court sentenced four policemen from the third and fourth precincts in Gumri to eight years of imprisonment for the August 12, 1997, death in custody of Galust Dilanian. 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. On October 8, 1998, a Vanadzor court freed one of the police officers, Rafik Gaboyan, by amnesty.

Given the very serious nature of the complaints about facilities under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Security, we are concerned about the ministry's lack of willingness to transfer both pretrial and post-conviction facilities to the Ministry of Justice's authority, and about the ministry's failure to cooperate with nongovernmental organizations that seek to monitor pretrial and post-conviction facilities. For example, on February 6, 1998, Mikael Danielian, chairman of the Helsinki Association of Armenia, submitted a request to be allowed access into pretrial and post-conviction facilities to monitor conditions. To date, the ministry has not responded to this request.

Restrictions on freedom of religion and government-sponsored religious intolerance.

In September 1997, the National Assembly adopted an amendment to Armenia's law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations that infringes on freedom of religion in Armenia, and fosters government-sponsored religious intolerance. The 1997 amendment prohibits financing for religions with spiritual centers outside the country, which broadly impacts most religions including the Roman Catholic Church, and increased the number of members required for registration of a religious organization from fifty to 200. The law as it was originally adopted in 1991, precludes proselytizing by religions other than the official Armenian Orthodox Church.

The law, and the amendment passed in 1997, violate freedom of religion, and are incompatible with Armenia's obligations under Article 18 of the ICCPR, which guarantees individuals the right " have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religious or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching."

The government's treatment of the Jehovah's Witness organization illustrates how freedom of religion continues to be violated in law as well as in practice in Armenia. On May 22, 1998, the Jehovah's Witness organization applied for registration and subsequently received a verbal rejection from the staff of the State Committee for Religious Affairs. Only after repeated appeals did members of the Jehovah's Witnesses receive a written rejection letter on July 17, 1998. Following the committee's refusal to register the organization in May, the organization appealed to the presidential commission on human rights to issue an unequivocal statement in support of the organization's registration. Rather than issue such a statement, on July 8, 1998, the presidential commission issued an opinion that the matter of the organization's registration should be dealt with in the courts. At present, Armenia has lagged in completing reform of its court system, and the judiciary remains heavily under the influence of the executive. As such, we view the presidential commission's ruling as a dismaying indication of the government's lack of commitment to defending basic human rights even when clear violations are brought to its attention.

After the presidential human rights commission's action on July 8, 1998, a smear campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses began in Armenia's official newspapers that included statements by officials of the Armenian government and of the Armenian Orthodox Church. The statements cited below help create a climate of hostility toward adherents to this faith:

"If the case would ever be submitted to court investigation, there would be a large public outcry. Hundreds of people, who have been victims of this sect, separated families -- children affected by its teaching -- would act as public prosecutors....Let them apply to the court, its their constitutional right." -- Lazar Sujyan, chairman of the State Committee of Religious Affairs, on July 15, 1998, in Respublica Armenia, the parliament's official newspaper, in an interview regarding the State Committee's decision to deny registration to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"The spread of the Jehovah's Witness ideology is a serious threat to the nation, state and religion. First, they prohibit their adherents to touch a gun, that is, to defend the homeland, life, liberty and religion and thus destroy the foundations of our state. Second, there are multiple suicides among the members of the sect -- students -- twelve years old, hung themselves. Both were from Sunik region. There are cases reported in which women reject keeping their households and bearing children or implementing their nuptial duties. Thus, wives practically disavow the oath given to their future husband when marrying, be it at the civil affairs register or at the church. It naturally leads to the destruction of the family, and thus the nation and the state." -- Bishop Parghev Martirossiyan of the Armenia Apostolic Church, on July 18, 1998, in Respublica Armenia, the parliament's official newspaper.

Statements such as these, which are indicative of the government's deep hostility to nontraditional religious faiths, preceeded a series of violent attacks on religious minorities in April 1995. The U.S. State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1995 states that members of twelve non-apostolic religious organizations were subject to attacks by paramilitary troops whose actions were reportedly cleared by high-level government officials. It adds, "Services were broken up by paramilitary troops wielding iron pipes and guns, pastors and adherents were beaten and kidnaped, and offices were ransacked and equipment stolen. Several victims were rushed to the hospital. About twenty adherents were held for several days or weeks at a military police facility before being released. When asked why they were being held, the commandant told the detainees that it was because of their religious beliefs. The attacks were tacitly abetted by months of articles critical of the groups in both the official and nonofficial press."

Eyewitnesses with whom Human Rights Watch spoke stated that immediately after the 1995 attacks they were detained and brought to the Ministry of Defense military police headquarters in Yerevan for a period of ten days to two weeks. Adherents to the Jehovah's Witness told Human Rights Watch that members of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Yerkrapah Battalion, a militia group of Nagorno Karabakh veterans headed by Defense Minister Vasgen Sarkisyan carried out the attacks. We are seriously alarmed that over the past three years the government of Armenia has refused to bring to justice any of the perpetrators of these attacks. We consider continued impunity for members of the security forces and the Yerkrapah for the attacks to be particularly troubling as we have received highly credible reports that the Yerkrapah organization has subsequently been responsible for other attacks such as the ransacking of a human rights center library in Vanadzor on July 29, 1997.

Arbitrary detention and harassment of journalists

We are concerned that the government officials' arbitrary detention and other incidents of harassment of journalists -- coupled with a lack of transparency in formulation of policy affecting the media -- has stifled freedom of the press in Armenia and contributes to a climate of self-censorship. For instance, on September 23, 1998, police detained staff of the Hrazdan Television Company, an independent television station located outside of Yerevan, as they were filming footage of newly installed traffic lights for a news broadcast. Police officials reportedly told the staff of the television company that only with the written consent of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Security did journalists have the right to broadcast information regarding police activities in Hrazdan. Journalists were detained for five hours, during which time Kotaik province police chief Armen Yeritziyan allegedly threatened the director of the television station in effort to discourage him from broadcasting information regarding the incident.

Journalists told Human Rights Watch that there is an unofficial list of taboo subjects on which the government does not allow reporting, thus choking off public debate on vital issues that have a significant impact on citizens' lives. Journalists stated that subjects the government deems too sensitive for public discussion include the routine conscription of Armenian citizens and refugees into the Armenian army with subsequent forced service in the former Nagorno Karabakh oblast and surrounding areas in Azerbaijan; and corruption and human rights violations by both Republic of Armenia security forces and security forces answerable to the Nagorno Karabakh authorities. Reporters noted that reporting on these subjects was likely to provoke harassing visits and summons for questioning from personnel from the Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs and National Security. We note that the government has failed to prosecute past incidents of retaliation against journalists by government officials, including beatings and arbitrary detentions, which has contributed to self-censorship and a stifling effect on the Armenian media.

There are other factors that contribute to self-censorship in Armenia. Ownership of Periodika and Hymamul, the sole newspaper printing press in the country and the largest distribution service that owns major newspaper street sales outlets in Yerevan, remains in government hands. The government's refusal to divest ownership of these entities gives officials the potential to shut or pressure newspapers who are deemed too critical of the government.

We are also concerned that the Ministry of Communication hinders the activities of independent television stations through failure to develop transparent licencing regulations, and by the widespread reports that the personnel of the ministry frequently solicits bribes from independent television station personnel during the licencing process and during inspections. We note that the Ministry of Communication's Committee for Review of Licence Applications does not meet in open session or hold public hearings, the ministry's Armenia Radio and Television Center has not published technical standards and fee schedules for broadcasting equipment, and that the ministry's National Inspectorate for Broadcasting and Measurement has no published standards for conducting inspections. For the past seven years this lack of written policies and transparency has had a stifling effect on the development of a vigorous, independent broadcast media in Armenia, and has allowed government officials to arbitrarily exert pressure on stations should it deem them overly critical of government officials or policy.

Failure to investigate and prosecute violent incidents and ballot tampering during the March presidential elections.

The OSCE's international election observer mission final report on the March 16, 1998, and March 30, 1998 rounds of the presidential election concluded that the election did not meet international standards, and that observers witnessed ballot stuffing, discrepancies in the vote counts, a large presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations, and instances of intimidation directed at voters, election commission members, candidate proxies and even the international observers themselves. This marked the third consecutive national election in as many years marred by serious irregularities.

Human Rights Watch has received numerous credible allegations that organized groups participated in ballot stuffing and violence during the first and second rounds of the Armenian presidential elections on March 16, 1998, and March 31, 1998. Reports include Yerevan precinct 1-5, where a group of approximately thirty men in dark civilian clothing entered the polling station on March 16 and beat two candidate proxies who protested the group's attempts to tamper with the ballot box. The procuracy and police have failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible, despite published reports regarding the incident and numerous witnesses on the scene.

We note that procuracy officials told Human Rights Watch on November 26 that of the forty complaints they investigated, only in four cases have perpetrators of election-related violations been held accountable. But the OSCE election observer mission report provides detailed documentation of widespread violations at the precinct and community electoral commission level that have not been prosecuted. They include ballot stuffing in Yerevan precinct 4-8, fabricated signature counts in Yerevan precinct 3-24, coupon stuffing in Yerevan precincts 8-30 and 8-16, and vote count irregularities in Yerevan precincts 1-6, 8-14, 11-38, and Lori precinct 1-5.

The developments outlined above cause serious alarm. We are particularly concerned by our findings that many of the abuses cited above appeared to be fostered by a deliberate systematic restriction on public access to laws and administrative decisions, and by lack of transparency in the process of formulation of laws and administrative rulemaking. We view this lack of transparency as directly contributing to poor human rights practices in Armenia, and to the widespread distrust in public institutions and lack of public confidence in the parliament, procuracy, police, army, and courts expressed to us by numerous victims of human rights abuses. A cornerstone of the rule of law is that citizens who are expected to abide by laws and regulations should have access to them -- and our findings indicate that in many cases there appeared to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the government to restrict access.

For these reasons, we believe the government of Armenia is not sufficiently committed to reform and rule of law to merit consideration for full membership in the Council of Europe, and we intend to urge the Parliamentary Assembly to set aside its consideration of Armenia's application until such time as the concerns outlined above are addressed. We therefore urge you to:

-reopen investigations of all deaths that the military procuracy has ruled as suicides or accidental deaths where significant evidence exists that murders have occurred;

-promptly make public full statistics on deaths in military units and the results of investigations into such deaths carried out by the military police, military procuracy and Ministry of Defense's office for control and inspection;

-promptly and fully investigate all credible allegations of physical abuse and prosecute all officers and soldiers found responsible;

-publish all laws, administrative rulings and codes of conduct that govern infractions by conscripts, officers and other Ministry of Defense personnel and that govern conditions and grounds for detention in Ministry of Defense holding facilities and disciplinary battalions;

-adopt and implement a law on alternative military service;

-carry out prompt and impartial investigations of all allegations of torture and physical abuse of detainees in the custody of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Security, make publically available the results of such investigations, and prosecute those officials found responsible;

-establish a system of independent inspection of all places of detention, including those under the authority of the Ministry of Defense;

-allow regular and routine access to places of detention to Armenian nongovernmental organizations involved in monitoring and humanitarian assistance to pre-trial detainees and prisoners;

-cease prosecuting police accused of torture on charges of abuse of office;

-publish statistics on complaints against abusive police officers, the results of investigations into complaints, and prosecution of such cases, including the nature of the charges and lengths of sentences;

-transfer all pretrial and post-conviction facilities such as closed prisons and labor colonies to the authority of the Ministry of Justice;

-repeal all provisions of the 1991 law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations, including the 1997 amendment to the law, that are incompatible with international standards;

-promptly register religious organizations on a nondiscriminatory basis and desist from harassing members of religious minority groups;

-investigate and prosecute instance of harassment of religious minorities by police and other government officials;

-divest ownership of the Periodika printing facilities and Hymamul newspaper distribution system;

-hold meetings of the Ministry of Communication's licencing review committee in open sessions, adopt transparent rules for applicants seeking television broadcast licences, publish fee scales and inspection standards, and investigate all allegations that Ministry of Communication staff extort bribes from those seeking broadcast licences.

I look forward to your response regarding these serious concerns, and to further dialogue with you and members of your government regarding human rights practices in Armenia.


Holly Cartner
Europe and Central Asia Division

Mr. Vasgen Sakisyan, Minister of Defense
Mr. Sergik Sarkisyan, Minister of Internal Affairs and National Security
Chief Procurator Agvan Hovsepiyan
Mr. Barur Harikiyan, Chair, Presidential Commision on Human Rights
Mme. Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
Mr. Nigel Rodley, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture
Mr. Jan Kleijssen,Co-Secretary, Council of Europe
Mr. Guy DuFour, Co-Secretary, Council of Europe
Mme. Danielle Coin, Co-Secretary,Council of Europe
Mr. Petr Sich, Co-Secretary, Council of Europe
Amb. Gerard Stoudmann, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe
Amb. John Mitchiner, UK Embassy Yerevan
Amb. Michel Legras, French Embassy Yerevan
Amb. Carola Muller-Holtkemper, German Embassy Yerevan
Amb. Michael Lemmon, U.S. Embassy Yerevan

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