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Unbridled Power of Elites Is Armenia's Biggest Human-Rights Thorn, Report Says

ICE Graveyard 21/04/2016 Armine Sahakyan

2016-04-21-1461211498-6559503-armenia655085_1280.png © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-04-21-1461211498-6559503-armenia655085_1280.png Image: Armenia Flag Fingerprint. Stock Photo.
The most significant human rights problem in Armenia last year was elites' use of their positions to consolidate their power, enrich themselves and corrupt the law-enforcement and judicial processes, according to a new U.S. State Department report.
Although business elites were part of the problem, the main culprits were leaders of the current government administration, President Serzh Sargsyan's Republican Party of Armenia, the report contends.
Among the dozens of other human-rights problems the report identifies are:
-- police abuse of power, including beatings and torture to obtain confessions.
-- bullying deaths of military cadets and conscripts.
-- government attempts to force university administrators, faculty and even student councils to support Republican Party of Armenia policies.
The report is part of the State Department's annual assessment of the state of human rights in countries around the world. It covers subjects as diverse as election violations, treatment of journalists and domestic abuse.
The report offered several examples of the Republican Party of Armenia's efforts to enhance its power in order to prolong its rule.
One was a constitutional amendment that changed Armenia's political system from semi-presidential to parliamentary.
The Sargsyan administration rushed the amendment through parliament, then put on a public-relations blitz to persuade the public to approve it. And in the end, it did pass.
Civil-service managers who owed their jobs to the administration put pressure on public-service employees to vote for the amendment, according to many news reports.
Another administration attempt to consolidate its power involved Sargsyan going after an opposition leader whose supporters planned protests against the constitutional amendment.
Sargsyan's target, Gagik Tsarukyan, a wealthy businessman turned politician, was the head of the country's second-largest party, Prosperous Armenia.
Sargsyan blasted him on national television, stripped him of his National Security Council position, told law-enforcement and tax officials to investigate whether he had committed crimes or engaged in tax evasion, and threatened to strip him of his seat in parliament.
Authorities also launched tax-evasion and other investigations into additional Prosperous Armenia leaders.
Tsarukyan joined many of those leaders in giving up public life.
The effect of Sargsyan's initiative was to neuter almost overnight the only political party that could mount a serious challenge to the Republican Party of Armenia's rule.
The State Department report contained even more examples of police misconduct than political misconduct.
"Police abuse of suspects during their arrest, detention and interrogation remained a significant problem," it said, adding: "Most victims did not report abuses due to fear of retaliation."
In addition to beatings, the mistreatment included electric shocks and putting gas masks over suspects' heads to make them fear they would be suffocated.
Armenia allows non-governmental organizations to see what goes on in its detention centers and prisons, but not its police stations. So the majority of police misconduct occurred in the stations, the State Department report said.
In addition to using violence to obtain confessions, police threatened violence against suspects' family members, according to the report.
In one instance, police tried without success to obtain a confession from a husband and wife. They finally told the couple that if they continued being uncooperative, their underage daughter, who was also in police custody, could be raped, the report said.
Military officials and civilian prosecutors and judges banded together to try to cover up the bullying deaths of cadets and conscripts, according to the report.
In some instances, military police leaned on those who had seen bullying deaths to lie about what happened, the report said.
In other instances, investigators destroyed or replaced evidence, including fingerprints.
The bullying death that generated the most headlines was four military-academy cadets' attempt to make their murder of another cadet appear to be a suicide. The four placed the already dead cadet in a noose suspended from the ground so it would look like he hung himself.
One of the four was the son of a deputy director of the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy who used his father's position to get away with outrageous behavior, the report said.
The section of the State Department report dealing with government leaders' interference in university affairs said their motivation was to intimidate administrators, faculty and even students into supporting Republican Party of Armenia policies.
Several government leaders' seats on university boards made it difficult for university communities to oppose their bidding. The board members included President Serzh Sargsyan, who headed the trustees at Armenia's most prestigious university, Yerevan State.
The government's pressure on universities made the news when students at Gyumri State Economic University protested faculty attempts to sway student-council elections. Government officials had asked the faculty to help insure the election of a council that would support Sargsyan-administration views.
The full State Department report is comprehensive, going into a lot more dimensions of human rights than a news article can cover.
To find the report, go to this link, then click on "Go to a Country Report," and select Armenia.
Armine Sahakyan is a human rights activist based in Armenia. A columnist with the Kyiv Post and a blogger with The Huffington Post, she writes on human rights and democracy in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Follow her on Twitter at:

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