Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Life Without Hope

After the abolition of the death penalty, Armenian lifers say they still face a bleak future.
By Karine Asatrian
Twenty-five-year-old Tsolak Melkonian was sentenced to death six years ago for a murder he committed when he was doing his military service. Then his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment under a presidential decree.

But Melkonian is depressed by the sentence that lies before him. “Life imprisonment is tougher than what I should be getting,” he said. “If there’s no death penalty, I should get 15 years. If they don’t review my sentence, I am ready to mount a hunger-strike.”

Melkonian has already been through several hunger-strikes after demanding that the courts review his sentence. Shortly after he committed the murder, he tried to shoot himself in the heart but survived.

In prison, he has married Lyuda Marutian, an eye specialist who visited him when he had problems with his vision.

IWPR met Melkonian, a tall thin young man, in the meeting room of Nubarashen prison, where his wife and grandmother had come to see him. The new prison governor recently gave inmates the right to three visits a year.

The meeting room had a divan, two armchairs, a small desk and a television. Melkonian talked to his grandmother while his wife made coffee.

“Life imprisonment is too harsh a punishment for a crime committed by a 19-year-old for which he has repented,” said Marutian.

Nubarashen prison is on the outskirts of the Armenian capital Yerevan. Journalists are only allowed to visit it with the permission of the justice ministry.

The round building can be seen from a long way off, but if you did not know, you would not realise it was a prison. There is no fence or barbed wire surrounding it, and no observation towers. All the checks on visitors take place inside.

Armenia currently has 71 prisoners serving life sentences, of whom 55 are in Nubarashen. The lifers live on the fifth floor along a long, narrow and dimly-lit corridor. There are three or four prisoners to a cell.

No one has been executed in Armenia since 1991, but the death penalty was only formally abolished in 2003, two years after Armenia joined the Council of Europe, for which this is a condition of membership. The president commuted 42 death sentences.

Many of the lifers, supported by human rights defenders, were unhappy about their new sentences, saying they were left with no hope for the future. They pointed out that under the old criminal code under which they were charged, their sentences should have been reduced to prison terms of between 15 and 20 years, not life.

“A fixed term of life imprisonment is more severe than 15 to 20 years,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, head of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia. “A toughening of the law should not be retroactive.”

Armenia’s recently appointed human rights ombudsman Armen Harutunian disagrees, saying abolition of the death penalty is a big step forward. “[Life imprisonment] really is more humane,” he said. “To be honest, we have not found any infringement of human rights here.”

However, many prisoners disagree, saying that even the improved prison conditions they live in are hard to endure.

“I think that life imprisonment is a harsher punishment than the death penalty,” said 38-year-old Manuk Semerjian, who has spent 15 years in Nubarashen.

“People are amazed at how I managed to survive and not die,” said Semerjian of his time in prison in the Nineties. “In those years, nothing was allowed in the cell – no parcels, no meetings. We got repulsive meals. And twice a day they beat us up.”

Semerjian said things began to improve only in 2001, when the justice ministry took over the prison. That year, Semerjian said, the beatings stopped.

Nikolai Arustamian, head of the justice ministry’s penal reform department, cited many improvements that had taken place in the last five years. He said living conditions had been improved, and the cells refurbished and provided with televisions.

The prison governor Aram Sargsian, appointed in 2005, says that he has ensured that conditions are now much better. He said two choices faced him as head of the jail, “To treat the prisoners like animals, enrage them and try to restrain them by force, or to create a peaceful moral and psychological atmosphere, a manageable situation and to guarantee safety. We chose the second path.”

Sargsian said the way inmates were treated depended on what category they were placed in – “especially dangerous”, “dangerous” and “less dangerous”. They are categorised not by their crime but according to their behaviour in prison.

Many lifers, especially those who fall into the most extreme category, still appear desperate. They are not allowed to walk in the open air, and their cells only have high barred windows.

Prominent Armenian human rights activist Mikael Danielian said he had no evidence of torture being practiced in prisons, but the living conditions there were “inhuman” and well short of European standards.

At dawn on July 23 this year, four prisoners tried to escape after sawing through a metal door lock and bolts with a razor. When warders blocked their way, three of them tried to slash their wrists. Armenian newspapers reported that they tried to harm themselves because they were afraid of being beaten.

Conditions are better for those in the “less dangerous” category. They include Edik Grigorian, Derenik Bejanian and Ashot Knyazian, all serving life sentences for the most notorious crime in Armenia in recent years, the shooting of eight prominent politicians inside parliament in October 1999.

The three men have a fridge, a table and chairs, and two televisions. They offered this correspondent a cup of hot chocolate to drink.

One of the three, Knyasian, expressed a common fear among the lifers, that even if a court orders their release after 20 years, as the criminal code allows, their lives will effectively be over.

Another lifer, Ashot Manukian, said, “I’ve been in jail since I was 19. If I get out, I’ll be 39. What can I study, what can I do, what’s the point? Will I be born again?”

According to human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian, a change in the constitution last year means that citizens now have the right to protest against presidential decrees in the constitutional court.

At the moment, the lifers have more modest hopes - being allowed to step out of their cells, walk in the courtyard and talk to their fellow inmates.

Karine Asatrian is a reporter with A1+ television in Yerevan.