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Letter to the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the US State Department about Concerns in Armenia, Az

Dear Secretary Kramer,

We believe that your forthcoming trips to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia provide important opportunities for raising key human rights concerns with the respective governments. Below we outline our main concerns in each country as well as recommendations for bringing the countries in line with their international commitments.

The February 19 presidential elections and the violent fallout that followed constituted one of the most serious political and human rights crises Armenia has faced since independence.

As you know, violent clashes between Armenian opposition demonstrators and security forces left at least ten people dead, including two security officials, and hundreds of injuries. Human Rights Watch researchers spent three weeks in Armenia to investigate this violence. Some of our key findings include:

  • Use of excessive force. Armenian police used excessive force and violence to disperse peaceful demonstrators at Freedom Square in the early hours of March 1. Without prior warning police in riot gear descended upon the demonstrators, beating them with truncheons and iron bars. Some were fleeing when police attacked them.
  • Unlawful resort to lethal force. Later that day, some demonstrators and security forces clashed violently, which resulted in at least ten deaths. Although in some cases documented by Human Rights Watch, police use of force may well have been legitimate, there were numerous instances when it was clearly excessive. The government has refused to investigate whether the resort to and use of lethal force was lawful, arguing that no policemen were armed, although a wealth of video and photographic evidence shows they in fact were armed. This steadfast refusal is deeply troubling and in clear violation of international standards on the use of lethal force.
  • Mass arrests starting March 1. On March 1 police started rounding up and arresting opposition supporters and participants in the demonstrations and violence, mostly charging them with organizing an unsanctioned rally, usurping power and resisting police. The vast majority of the detainees who had been beaten when they were arrested were charged with resisting arrest. Human Rights Watch documented physical abuse and ill-treatment of detainees during their arrests as well as while being transported to the police department. In some cases abuses continued in custody.
  • Due process rights violations. Human Rights Watch conducted extensive research into the arrests that followed March 1 and documented a number of serious due process violations in the course of these arrests, including: incommunicado detention for days, lack of access to counsel and numerous barriers to retain the lawyer of one’s choice, lack of investigation into allegations of ill-treatment, and artificially delayed forensic examinations.
  • Human Rights Watch has also documented a broader crackdown on opposition supporters, including repeated interrogations, detention lasting hours and intimidation aimed at stopping them from participating in opposition events.
  • Restrictions on freedom of assembly. Just before lifting the state of emergency on March 21, 2008, the Armenian National Assembly passed amendments to the law on public assembly that severely restrict public gatherings; a move criticized by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Human Rights Watch considers the amendments incompatible with Armenia’s obligations to respect freedom of assembly under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The government denied numerous opposition requests to hold public rallies, and Human Rights Watch documented the brief detention of at least 90 people who participated in peaceful “public walks” organized by political opposition supporters.

The United States government should press the Armenian leadership to:

  • Investigate alleged excessive use of force by police on the morning of March 1, 2008 and later during the day. Ensure that such investigation is in accordance with international standards by accepting international expertise and assistance. This will ensure independence and help to restore public trust;
  • Investigate all allegations of ill-treatment during arrests and in police custody, and release those who have been arbitrarily detained for alleged participation in unlawful demonstrations;
  • Lift extensive restrictions on freedom of assembly by repealing the amendments to the public assembly law; bring the amended law into line with regional and international human rights law; and follow recommendations provided by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights; and
  • Stop harassment of the press and opposition supporters, including detentions, repeated interrogations, dismissals, and usage of tax audits as a political tool for pressure.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about rapidly deteriorating media freedoms in Azerbaijan and closure of the independent election monitoring organization, both of which will have a negative impact on the upcoming presidential elections in October, compromising the freedom and fairness of the vote.

  • Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the Azerbaijani government has used libel, defamation and other criminal charges to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, some of whom have also been physically attacked by unknown assailants. By the end of 2007, nine journalists were imprisoned in Azerbaijan for defamation and other criminal charges. Although President Aliyev pardoned some journalists, four still remain behind bars. They are:
    • Eynulla Fatullayev, the outspoken founder and editor-in-chief of two newspapers – Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan – who was convicted in October 2007 for fomenting terrorism and other dubious criminal charges and sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. His sentence was upheld by the Baku Appellate Court on January 16. The terrorism charges derived from an article Fatullayev had written arguing that the government’s Iran policy might make Azerbaijan vulnerable to attack from Iran and speculating what several targets for attack might be. Such expression is legitimate political commentary, and is speech that is protected under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Six months earlier Fatuallayev was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on charges of libel and insult for an internet posting, which he denied to have written. Both newspapers, which had the largest circulations among print outlets in the country, were effectively shut down in May 2007, after Emergency Ministry and National Security Ministry personnel evicted staff from the papers’ premises, confiscated computer hard drives, and sealed their offices shut.
    • Mirza Sakit, a reporter and satirist for the daily Azadlyg, who is serving a three year prison sentence on equally dubious charges of narcotics possession.
    • Ganimed Zahid, editor-in-chief of Azadlyg who has been in pretrial custody since November 2007 for spurious hooliganism charges; and
    • Mushfig Husseinov, a Bizim Yol newspaper journalist who is in pretrial custody awaiting trial on questionable extortion charges, which local NGOs believe were the result of entrapment.
    • The Azerbaijani government has also failed to conclusively investigate numerous reports of violence and threats of violence against opposition and independent journalists. In March 2008 four unknown assailants attacked and stabbed Agil Khalil, a correspondent with Azadlig, a newspaper critical of the Azerbaijani authorities, in the chest. In April 2007 unknown assailants attacked Realny Azerbaijan’s Uzeir Jafarov, who sustained serous injuries. At least two other journalists, Hakimeldostu Mehdiev and Suhayla Gamberova, were hospitalized with injuries they sustained following assaults in 2007 related to their work.
  • Human Rights Watch is alarmed about the recent closure of the Election Monitoring Center (EMC), a nonpartisan domestic monitoring organization that worked in partnership with the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, which promotes election transparency and fairness worldwide. On May 14, the Khatai District Court of Baku found EMC in violation of the registration law, ruled in favor of the Ministry of Justice’s decision to annul the organization’s registration, and ordered the EMC’s liquidation. EMC was founded in 2001 and observed six elections in Azerbaijan. Its registration was granted only on February 12, 2008, after being denied its six previous applications. However, in less than three months (April 29) the Ministry of Justice reversed its decision and initiated legal proceedings against the organization on the grounds that it had given inaccurate information about its founders and legal address, and opened eight local offices in the regions without informing the Ministry. The charges appear minor and insufficient to warrant such a harsh penalty. The decision to immediately cancel the registration and liquidate the organization, rather than issue a warning and allow EMC to correct any mistakes in the registration, seem to indicate that the action is politically motivated.

The United States government should press the Azerbaijan leadership to:

  • Immediately release the remaining journalists from prison and take a number of other resolute steps to show its commitments to freedom of expression in the run-up to the presidential elections.
  • Repeal the criminal libel law. As a minimum, interim step, it should announce a moratorium on further use of it. Civil remedies with a reasonable monetary cap, not criminal prosecutions, should be available in cases of libel.
  • Take immediate steps to conclusively investigate all allegations of assaults against journalists and hold perpetrators accountable.
  • Re-register the Election Monitoring Center and refrain from creating any impediments to domestic observation of the October 15 Presidential polls in the country.

Human Rights Watch’s concerns on Georgia fall into the following categories: excessive use of force by Georgian law enforcements on November 7, prison overcrowding, and lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

  • On November 7, 2007, riot police used excessive force to disperse the largely peaceful demonstrations in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. Law enforcement personnel, many of them wearing masks, pursued fleeing demonstrators of all ages, kicking and punching them, and striking them with wooden truncheons, wooden poles, and other objects. They appeared to fire rubber bullets indiscriminately and directly at fleeing demonstrators. Heavily armed police and security personnel stormed a private television station, Imedi, threatening and ejecting the staff, as well as damaging and destroying much of the station’s equipment, forcing the station off the air for almost a month. While a number of important steps have been taken by the Georgian government since then to defuse the crisis, a comprehensive, transparent and conclusive investigation into the excessive use of force has yet to be undertaken.
  • Another well-documented area of concern in Georgia is its poor prison conditions. Overcrowding is a serious problem in many of Georgia’s penitentiary facilities, leading to numerous human rights violations, including inadequate nutrition, medical care, and exercise. Although the government has taken several steps in response to overcrowding--including presidential pardon and amnesty in late 2007 and spring 2008, as well as the opening of a new prison in Gldani (Tbilisi)--these steps do not address the root causes of the problem, and many facilities remain severely overcrowded. A lasting, strategic solution to overcrowding requires the adoption of alternatives to pretrial custody and the development of probation and parole systems.
  • The Georgian government lowered the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12 for certain crimes in May 2007. The move directly flouted a recommendation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (Georgia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child), to states not to lower the age of criminal responsibility, and further weakened the protection of children in conflict with the law. The new measure will come into effect in July 2008, but Georgia has failed to build a juvenile justice system capable of rehabilitating young offenders. In June 2008 the CRC strongly urged the Georgian government to “reinstate as a matter of urgency, the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 14 years.”

The United States government should press the Georgian leadership to:

  • Investigate the excessive use of force on November 7 on Rustaveli Avenue, at Rike and outside of Imedi television studios. Such investigation should be independent, comprehensive, open to public scrutiny and capable of leading to the prosecution of abusive officials.
  • Effectively address the longstanding problem of prison overcrowding by adopting alternatives to pretrial custody and developing probation and parole systems.
  • Repeal the amendments lowering the age of criminal responsibility in line with Georgia’s international obligations. Develop a juvenile justice system, capable of rehabilitating children in conflict with the law, not just isolating them.

We hope you will find this information and suggested recommendations useful as you prepare for your visit to the region. Thank you very much and with best wishes for a productive trip.

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

Tom Malinowski
Washington Advocacy

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