Armenia Accepts US Criticism Over Human Rights But Claims Progress

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia’said Wednesday it is looking with "great interest" into the mostly critical report by the US State Department on its human rights record in 1998. A spokesman for the Armenian foreign ministry told RFE/RL the annual report–which also discerned progress in some areas–was "overall unbiased and thorough."

The State Department said last week that despite constitutional guarantees for human rights protection–major problems persist in areas like free elections–maltreatment in custody and some restrictions on religious freedom. Pointing to the March 1998 presidential election–the report said citizens’ ability to change their government remained restricted.

But foreign ministry spokesman Ara Papian blamed the poor handling of the polls on Armenia’s former "imperfect" law on elections. A monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the election fell short of OSCE standards. But Papian emphasized that the OSCE did see some improvement in the government’s vote handling as well. "The recently adopted new electoral code was designed to contribute to free and fair elections," he said.

Papian said Yerevan shares US concern over the treatment of detainees in Armenia. The report said detainees are routinely beaten by police during arrest and interrogation that are often carried out without warran’s. "Armenia is concerned at the facts of beating and torture by law-enforcement bodies," he said–while adding that Armenian citizens often do not use all existing mechanisms for human rights protection before appealing to international organizations.

The spokesman called into question the report’s claim that religious freedom in Armenia is restricted. According to Papian–all 45 operating religious organizations except the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect have been registered by the authorities. "Activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses contradicts Armenian legislation but members of this religious community are not being persecuted," he said.

The State Department also said the government of President Robert Kocharian has taken certain steps to improve the situation with human rights and reform the constitution. It noted that one of Kocharian’s first actions was to pressure the judiciary to release many persons convicted in politically-linked trials. While welcoming this positive note–Papian said the report does not mention Armenia’s "recent achievemen’s" in bringing its human rights legislation into conformity with international norms. He pointed to the adoption in 1998 of a new code on due process of law as well as ongoing work on a new criminal code.

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