Self-mutilation by hunger-striking prisoners is raising a public clamor in Armenia about treatment of the country’s roughly 4,800 inmates.
In an attempt to attract greater attention to demands for improved living conditions behind bars, one prisoner sewed his eyes shut; two others sewed their mouths. A third cut off his little finger.
As Armenia’s northern neighbor, Georgia, demonstrated last month, prison problems can have serious ramifications for incumbent authorities: experts say the distribution of video images of prison abuse in Georgia was a major factor in the defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the October parliamentary elections. Although Armenia itself faces a presidential vote in roughly four months, Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian’s initial response to the hunger strike, now into their third week without food, was dismissive.
“Some of them who sew up their mouths already have the holes for it. It has become something very common,” said Tovmasian at an October 31 press briefing. “Just like girls pierce their ears and wear earrings, they sew up their mouths.”
Outraged, some civil society activists sent thread and needle to Tovmasian, demanding the minister’s resignation, and that he try sewing his own eyes and mouth shut. Human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian, head of the Helsinki Committee, which monitors Armenia’s 11 penitentiaries, stressed that “if [prisoners] are now talking and resorting to extremes, that means they have hit the bottom.”
Unofficial “[p]rison rules are so strict that convicts usually keep silent not to become outcasts,” Ishkhanian added.
Ombudsman Karen Andreasian agreed. “People resort to self-harm as an act of ultimate despair and the minister should be seriously worried not to let such things become common,” Andreasian told EurasiaNet.org.
In a 2011 report, a group of 10 prison observers cited “lawlessness and prison overcrowding” as critical problems confronting Armenia’s prisons. [Editor’s Note: The observer group was financed by the Open Society Foundation Armenia, part of the Open Society Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New-York-City-based Open Society Foundations, a separate part of that network.]
The report describes conditions as “humiliating” at Nubarashen, Armenia’s largest prison, located outside Yerevan, where four of the hunger-strikers are confined. The prison is designed to hold a maximum of 1,200 detainees, but currently contains an estimated 1,400 people. “The conditions are really intolerable: 20 inmates live in 30-40 square meters [of space], with not enough bedding, so that people sleep in shifts,” said human-rights lawyer Robert Revazian, a member of the monitoring group.
A 2011 amnesty by President Serzh Sargsyan freed 400 of Armenia’s prisoners, “but it was a short-term solution because soon the pardoned got replaced by new prisoners,” said human-rights advocate Artur Sakunts, director of the Helsinki Citizen Association’s office in the northern city of Vanadzor.
“Some 90 percent of defendants get sent to prison before a court ruling,” said Sakunts, referring to a practice prevalent in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan as well.
Armenia’s government says it is prioritizing the issue of prison conditions, and officials contend that a four-year strategy will solve the prison-overpopulation problem by 2017. But rights activists are skeptical. Armenia has carried out prison reforms repeatedly since 1991, when it declared independence from the Soviet Union, with few tangible results, they say.
First Deputy Justice Minister Grigor Muradian asserts that the coming reforms will take “structural steps embracing all directions.” For example, to tackle overcrowding and “help convicts reintegrate” back into society, probation will be introduced as an alternative to incarceration, Muradian said. In addition, the practice of pre-trial detention will be implemented only in cases of extreme necessity, the ministry says.
Parliament, in turn, is working on a package of reform proposals, but details are not yet available. The reform ideas are scheduled to be publicly presented November 20.
Prosperous Armenia Party MP Naira Zohrabian, chair of parliament’s Committee on European Integration, one of the bodies meeting with European monitors, agrees that “the prisons are in a sad and deplorable state.” Zohrabian also asserts that parliament is determined to “take the necessary steps to fix” matters. While problems with sanitation, food supplies and adequate medical care can be resolved relatively quickly, “structural” issues will require more time, she added, without elaboration.
Human-rights activists aren't necessarily cheered by such comments. Ishkhanian and Sakunts both suggested that resolute statements about addressing issues could just be electoral cycle rhetoric, adding that “lawmakers’ proactive approach is only temporary.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.