In an earlier age, dissidents and political activists could be treated somewhat like royalty by fellow inmates when they were locked up. Not any more in Armenia. Some prominent government critics openly worry that they will be targeted for abuse if they ever find themselves behind bars.
The abuse of inmates in prisons is a long-time issue in Armenia, and across the former Soviet Union. And violence can involve all segments of the prison population, not just those jailed for what could be described as political reasons. Yet some prominent rights activists contend that those who advocate policies and positions that run counter to government stances now face new threats. According to Armenian Helsinki Commission Chairperson Avetik Ishkhanian, “the situation [in Armenia’s prisons] has gone from bad to worse.”
Activists imprisoned during the politically tumultuous 1990s could find “a special positive attitude” among other prisoners toward them for opposing the government. Now, Ishkhanian alleged, “criminal figures are used to [exert] pressure on those with [anti-government] political views.”
“None of us [government watchdogs] has a guarantee that we will not get arrested and abused in prisons,” said Artur Sakunts, the head of the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly, and a sometimes vocal critic of President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration. “This is a challenge for the general public.”
In its 2015-2016 country report, Amnesty International described prison abuse as a significant issue. “Torture and other ill-treatment in police custody and in prisons, as well as impunity for the perpetrators, remained a concern,” the London-based organization wrote, citing Armenian human rights organizations.
The US State Department raised more specific concerns, identifying a problem area in its latest human rights report concerning “abuse and discrimination” against LGBT Armenians in prisons and the military.
Sakunts said that many Armenians who have experienced abuse in prison – uniformly men – prefer to stay silent about their experiences. In Armenia’s macho culture, some are ashamed since they think others could interpret abuse as a sign of physical weakness; others fear retaliation, while still others believe that publicizing their experiences would serve no purpose.
One well-known government critic, 59-year-old civil rights activist Vardges Gaspari, is bucking the general trend, and has gone public with claims of abuse. Since the 1980s, Gaspari has carried out numerous, one-man protests over perceived rights violations. He spent a year in jail for his alleged participation in the post-presidential-election violence in 2008 that left at least 10 people dead in Yerevan. He has also been involved in numerous court cases involving administrative infractions, such as disobeying a police order.
On February 19, he was sentenced to a week in Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison for not having shown up at a court hearing into an accusation that he had interfered with the work of an election commission. In protest, Gaspari refused food and water. Rather than being sent to a cell for hunger strikers, he claimed he was taken to a regular cell that was designed to accommodate numerous inmates.
“There were five of us, which seemed suspicious to me because normally such cells are very crowded,” he told EurasiaNet.org. Gaspari alleged that three of the prisoners “received orders on the phone” to force him to eat. Although the law prohibits prisoners to have mobile phones, they nonetheless exist, according to popular reports.
“I was lying on my bed [and] they were kicking my hips and ribs, saying ‘This is not a cell for a hunger strike. Get up, eat something!” Gaspari alleged that prison guards did not respond to his loud cries for help. When one guard finally inquired, the other prisoners said everything was fine, and so the guard went away, Gaspari said.
Proving Gaspari’s claims is no simple matter. No comprehensive monitoring mechanism exists. Volunteer monitors have visited Armenia’s prisons about 30 times this year, according to one participant, but only make the trip when allegations of wrongdoing surface. Gaspari’s own claims gained media attention when he was taken to a psychiatric hospital – another cause for a civil society outcry – and he detailed his experiences to his lawyer.
The Ministry of Justice’s Penitentiary Department on February 27 stated that an investigation did not substantiate Gaspari’s claims of physical abuse and verbal humiliation. The department did not elaborate on how it made its determination. Activists and MPs who have visited Gaspari since the incident support his version of events.
Although unable to prove anything, Gaspari’s allegations have brought the question of prisoner-on-prisoner abuse into the open. Many human rights defenders say the claims are nothing new. Opposition activists Gevorg Safarian, jailed in December for allegedly fighting with Yerevan police, and Hayk Kyureghian, sentenced in September to nine years in prison for firing off an air gun to protest another activist’s jailing, also both have alleged abuse by cellmates in Nubarashen prison.
Armenia’s group of volunteer prison monitors has gone to Nuburashen prison before to check on reports of abuse, said Robert Revazian, a lawyer for the Armenian Helsinki Commission. But they often have a hard time getting officials and inmates to speak openly. The fear of reprisals is prevalent.
A prominent opposition MP, Nikol Pashinian, who spent over three years in prison for his alleged role in deadly clashes between opposition and police after the 2008 post-presidential-election violence, voiced doubt that existing problems can be solved with new legislation.
“The problem is not in the legislation,” said Pashinian, who claims that masked individuals beat him during his stint in prison. “The issue is that the criminal mentality [in the prison system] must be uprooted.”
Zhanna Alexanian, chair of Journalists for Human Rights, said that the persistence of complaints indicates that “abuse and pressure [against government critics] is encouraged at the state level.”
The head of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia’s parliamentary faction, Vahram Baghdasarian, rejected Alexanian’s claim as unfounded. “Such phenomena, which are much spoken about, do not exist, I assure you,” Baghdasarian said. “There is much attention paid to all questions [raised about prison practices.] Our penitentiaries correspond to all standards.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.