“We have the right to freedom of speech, but we don’t have leverage to influence”


Photo by FIDH

Interview with Artak Kirakosyan, Chairman of the Board of the Civil Society Institute NGO

In your opinion, how does the year 2013 stand out in relation to human rights protection and implementation?

I think nothing revolutionary happened last year. The behavior of police hasn’t change in essence, perhaps during demonstrations police more or less showed professionalism, but taken as a whole its methods and work style remained the same.   

There were a lot of discussions around anti-discrimination law, but after all, it’s still unclear whether the draft law would bring any outcome or not.

Great and pointless discussions took place around the law on gender equality, like what the notion of “gender” means, whether it exists or not etc., which are absurd from both scientific and social points of view. It’s like to discuss whether the notion of “sex” exists or not.

Unfortunately, there have been cases which also happened before and give rise to concerns. Those are instances of violence against the activists protesting against the rise in public transport fares and 7 young men who had personal relationship with them, happened if I am not mistaken in August-September. We expressed our worries by issuing a statement and requesting a prompt and effective investigation and suppression of such malpractice, however the organizers and perpetrators of the beatings were not identified and police failed to inform the public about the outcomes of the investigation.

Our essential problem and this is proven by the numerous demonstrations and rallies that in Armenia decisions are not made transparently, from the increase in transportation fares to the intent to join the Customs Union. It has become obvious that in principle in our country there are no “civilized” mechanisms of decision making, and this is against the background of the advancement, one can say, of the freedom of speech. This brings us to the reality when people are aware about current problems, have willingness to influence and participate in their resolution, but have no leverage to make their voices be heard. I think this is the biggest challenge for democracy in Armenia, which moved from 2013 to 2014. Let’s see whether there will be any progress this year or not.

In your opinion, what are the most significant events or decisions of 2013 in the field of human rights?

We have a new young Prosecutor General. Time will tell how efficient his work will be. To speak the truth, everyone got tired and no one expected anything positive from his predecessor. Certain changes in personnel took place in the Office of the Prosecutor General, a joint investigation body has been created, but the results of these decisions are yet to be seen in 2014.

There were also two elections in 2013, the Presidential election and Yerevan City Council election. Those can be compared with the previously held elections so as to find bad and good sides; however their main mission, to form the government through elections, remained incomplete, since elections in our country are still а mechanism of reproduction of the current authorities. 2013 elections haven’t changed much in the distrust existing in the society towards elections.

2013 got rid of people, the society has really got tired of. One of them is the Governor of Syunik region, Suren Khachatryan, the other, as it was already mentioned, is the ex-Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepyan, but, again, we cannot speak of any essential positive changes yet.

It looks like Special Investigation Service after getting a new Head started to act more active than before, but there is no visible result yet.

The resolution of the issues existing in the penal system has been delayed. In 2013 we still didn’t acquire a probation system. The amnesty declared in connection with Armenia's Independence Day has temporary resolved the problem of overcrowded prisons.

To sum up, I can say, that in 2013 we had no effectively functioning public system which can be regarded as achievement.

If compared with previous years what specialized areas of human rights have advanced?

I think the right to freedom of speech has significantly strengthened, which first and foremost is conditioned by wide spread of the Internet. In fact, today everyone has internet access in Armenia. I don’t think that it is possible if someone obtains a piece of information and is not able to spread it, make it known to society. In this respect there are no restrictions.

A negative development in the field of women rights is the rejection of the draft law on domestic violence, around which a great discussion unfolded. However, the discussions shifted to the issues which have nothing to do with the draft law and are not important for the society whereas in this entire buzz truly burning issues got lost and were paid no attention.

What are the changes in the field of fair trial?

In this respect we had two quite illustrative cases, which were also highly publicized. One of them is the well-known “Haystack” case, which is important because it illustrated that our system of justice from investigative agencies to court is not functioning properly. It was obvious in this case that there were not even traces of a crime, but people were detained for quite a long time and eventually were found guilty.

As to the second case, since last year we have had an instance when policemen were convicted of committing a crime of torture which gives us hope that law-enforcing bodies are not above law in Armenia. I am talking about the case of two officers of the criminal investigation department who tortured Robert Hovsepyan. But what happened in the end? Тhe amnesty applied to conceal somehow the shameful “Haystack” case and to release innocent people included also the torturers, who were also set free. We published an open letter on this issue, because including perpetrators of torture in amnesty is not allowed by international practice.

In the field of justice, particularly in the judicial system the issues are those which were raised in the Ombudsman’s report. They exist and there are no solutions. This is linked to the oligarchical system and merger of governmental structures and business. This is the underlying cause of the fact that our judicial system is not independent and fully functional. However, it cannot be said that the administration of justice is entirely lacking in Armenia. There is no need to run to an extreme.

What are the issues NGOs have to focus on in 2014?

Not only NGOs but also journalists and authorities have to focus on a number of issues. First and foremost, as it was mentioned, there is a problem of public participation in decision-making, which is present on both municipal and national levels. If a forum, bringing society and authorities into dialogue, is not created, then demonstrations and street actions will go on and eventually end up with clashes.

The second important issue, which has to be on the agenda of human rights organizations, is the Genocide issue. 2015 is the year of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and the issue must be a constant focal point of human rights organizations from the legal recognition point of view as well as, and this is the most important aspect, as a crime against humanity, so as to prevent such crimes from happening again.

It is a shame that Armenia hasn’t ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which is the most important mechanism which establishes criminal responsibility for those responsible for such crimes. I think we have to act in this respect, there is a state commission coordinating of the events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, but there is also the need to engage society to help in resolving this issue.

We have no elections in 2014 and 2015, which is a good opportunity to spend time on real improvements on this field.

The shortcomings of the judicial system are connected to the other issues of the society. The Prosecutor General has to spend effort to give a good account of himself, because the system we have today does not satisfy the needs of society.

I think the discussions around gender issues will calm down and such nonsense debates will be replaced by more fruitful discussions. Let’s hope that real problems we have, like domestic violence, gender discrimination, homosexual intolerance, will not be overly politicized and will be resolved without any empty rhetoric.

Of course there are serious problems in army. In this respect the involvement of NGOs and society in general in the formation of the army is very important so as to restore the trust towards it.

How was 2013 for CSI? What are the planned activities for 2014?

For me 2013 is important and special first and foremost because of the creation with CSI’s support of the “Ceasefire: the pain of human loss” organization of mothers and relatives of those killed as a result of ceasefire violations on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. To date the organization has more than 30 members, people to whom our society is in debt.

In the field of juvenile justice we introduced the basics of mediation system. We held a series of trainings on mediation for staff members of  “Abovyan” Penitentiary Institution and police officers dealing with juvenile cases. They were inspired by the trainings and also expressed the opinion that it is impossible to work with juveniles exclusively from the penal code perspective. By acting like this we do not prevent crimes from happening but also ruin lives.

In 2013 in Turkey Turkish NGOs for the first time joined us in a statement, which was reinforced by the International Federation for Human Rights Resolution and made two distinct claims. First one is it the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the second one to open border with Armenia without any conditions. In my opinion this can be considered as a groundbreaking step, since right emphases are clearly made. 

Election monitoring missions were also implemented which, as I always stress, are more of a mission to prevent violations.

In 2014 CSI will continue its work on implementation of probation system, juvenile justice, the institute of mediation, peace building, legal and social support of the families suffered from the ceasefire violations and as well as other issues. We will also continue to focus on the issue of recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide as well as prevention of such crimes from happening in the future. In this respect a huge work needs to be done also with our Turkish partners.

We also have an issue of suppression of the violence in society, particularly among juveniles in schools and special schools. 

Interview by Mariam Sargsyan