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Armenia to Reform Detention Rules
Armenian justice minister Hrayr Tovmasyan. (Photo: Photolure agency)
Despite agreement that pre-trial detention is used far too much in Armenia, the practice continues. Now the government is drafting changes to the law that will offer alternatives to incarceration.
International rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns about the indiscriminate use of detention ahead of trial, and the knock-on effects on prison overcrowding.
State prosecutors invariably ask for suspects to be kept in custody regardless of the nature or gravity of the alleged crime, and judges generally agree to such requests. (See Cavalier Use of Custody in Armenia on the practice.)
Lawyer Nikolay Baghdasaryan says pre-trial detention is not used for want of other options, but because it is seen as a good way of encouraging suspects to confess.
In one recent high-profile case that focused attention on the issue, Baghdasaryan defended actor Vardan Petrosyan, who was charged with causing death by dangerous driving after an accident on October 20 in which two young men were killed.
Baghdasaryan said the court’s decision to place his client in custody pending trial was unjustified, since none of the three criteria for doing so had been met. These would apply in the event that a suspect tried to evade arrest, was likely to interfere with the investigation, or had no health problems. None was true in Petrosyan’s case, the lawyer said.
“I don’t know why the court broke the law, but it did,” Baghdasaryan told IWPR.
He appealed against the custody ruling in a higher court, but without success.
Edmon Marukyan, a former human rights activist and now an independent member of parliament, said the Petrosyan case opened a lot of people’s eyes to the excessive use of detention.
“The alternative methods of restraint which we have in the current legal code are barely used in criminal cases in Armenia,” he told IWPR. “In 95 per cent of criminal cases the courts approve the prosecution request for the suspect to be kept in detention.”
A spokesman for the judicial system, Arsen Babayan, disputed that figure. He said that of the 3,200 individuals charged in January-June 2013, only 820 were ordered to be detained pending trial. Babayan said this meant that only 26 per cent of individuals charged were held in detention, not 95 per cent as Baghdasaryan claimed.
Nevertheless, Baghdasaryan insisted that pre-trial custody was over-used and that courts were far from consistent in the way they applied it.
The office of Armenia’s official human rights ombudsman agrees there is a problem.
“Pre-trial detention is sometimes accompanied by violations of the presumption of innocence,” Yeranuhi Tumanyan, an adviser to the ombudsman, told IWPR. “Holding a suspect in detention must not be used as a form of punishment, and must only be used when absolutely necessary.”
The government is now considering amendments to the penal code to allow suspects to be subject to restrictions that do not include imprisonment.
“We don’t have alternative mechanisms of restraint,” Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasyan told parliament on December 18. “House arrest and administrative [restraints] will be introduced in the new code. Once they are in force, we will significantly reduce the burden on detention facilities.
“We will use detention as a last resort if all other forms of restraint are not suitable.”
Marianna Ghahramanyan is a correspondent for Armnews.am.
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