Armenia’s Office of the Human Rights Defender is facing an uncertain future after a government-engineered leadership change. The country’s first human rights ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdian, is set to be replaced by a staunch loyalist of President Robert Kocharian after two years of high-profile activities that irked the ruling regime but drew praise from civic groups.
The Human Rights Office was set up in late 2003, under pressure from the Council of Europe, to protect human rights in Armenia. The agency was supposed to provide an important mechanism for redressing injustice and abuses suffered by ordinary Armenian citizens at the hands of government officials and powerful non-state actors. But the fact that the first ombudsperson was appointed by Kocharian fuelled widespread skepticism about its independence and effectiveness. Government officials and Council of Europe representatives described this appointment as a temporary solution, arguing that the ombudsperson would be chosen by parliament immediately after relevant amendments to the Armenian constitution.
Alaverdian was widely mistrusted by civil society representatives and opposition politicians when she took over as ombudsperson in February 2004. Government critics pointed to her membership in a largely ineffectual presidential commission on human rights and lack of relevant experience. However, she proved them wrong by gradually becoming a rare voice of dissent within a government system exceedingly subservient to Kocharian.
That Alaverdian is no pushover became obvious in April 2005 with the publication of her first annual report, which harshly criticized the authorities’ human rights record. In particular, she condemned a vicious government crackdown on the opposition that was triggered by its unsuccessful 2004 attempt to stage an anti-government “revolution” in Armenia. The report also decried widespread violations of the due process of law in the country, saying that local courts’ bias in favor of state prosecutors is “constantly evident” and that the law-enforcement agencies rarely investigate torture allegations made by criminal suspects.
The government responded by asking the Kocharian-controlled parliament to scrap legal provisions giving the ombudsperson the right to demand written explanations and other documents from Armenian courts. The motion was unexpectedly blocked by a parliamentary committee on legal affairs. However, the government promptly secured a ruling by the Constitutional Court that declared those provisions unconstitutional. Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who wields disproportionate influence on the Armenian judiciary, has since repeatedly accused Alaverdian of trying to illegally “direct activities of courts,” a charge she strongly denies.
Alaverdian tried to voice her objections at an April 2005 cabinet meeting chaired by Kocharian but was reportedly interrupted by the president. She walked out of the meeting in disgust — an unprecedented gesture of defiance that she believes sealed her fate.
The ombudsperson further infuriated the authorities with her vocal support for hundreds of low-income families that have been evicted from their old houses in downtown Yerevan as a result of the massive commercial redevelopment going on there. In a special report issued last September, she charged that the process has violated a constitutional clause stipulating that private property can be taken away by the state only in “exceptional” cases and with “commensurate compensation” paid to its owners. Many of the displaced residents believe that they have been ripped off as a result of high-level government corruption.
Ironically, the Armenian authorities have gotten rid of Alaverdian through a legal provision that was meant to make the human rights defender independent of the executive. One of the amendments to Armenia’s constitution, controversially enacted in the November 27 referendum, mandates the election of a new ombudsperson by the National Assembly. Alaverdian had to resign on January 5 after the authorities refused to let her continue to perform her duties until the election of her successor. They also rejected her request for permission to address the parliament with another annual report as required by law. Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian said on February 3 that the report summarizing her activities in 2005 must be released by the new ombudsperson. Haykakan Zhamanak, a leading Yerevan daily, denounced the decision as “absurd.”
The parliament, meanwhile, is expected to vote on February 8 to give the job to Armen Harutiunian, Kocharian’s top legal adviser, who has never been involved in human rights advocacy or other civic activism. As another independent newspaper, 168 Zham, pointed out, “His being a loyal servant is beyond doubt” for Kocharian. The Armenian leader clearly disagrees with those who think that his regime does not quite respect the constitutionally guaranteed rights of its citizens. As recently as on January 19, he rejected the latest Human Rights Watch report on Armenia, which concluded that the Kocharian administration’s human rights record remains poor. A spokesman for Kocharian specifically claimed that the New York-based watchdog’s assertion (endorsed by Armenian human rights groups) that police torture remains commonplace in Armenia has “nothing to do with reality.”
With Harutiunian extremely unlikely to fall foul of this official line, the Office of the Human Rights Defender may well become an ineffectual body soon. Human rights activists are particularly pessimistic about its future. As Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee grimly predicted at a recent roundtable discussion in Yerevan, “The post of human rights ombudsperson will be a mere façade from now on.”
(A1Plus.am, February 6; Haykakan Zhamanak, February 3; 168 Zham, February 2; RFE/RL Armenia Report, January 19)