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Human Rights Standoff in Armenia

President Kocharian in another fight with his tenacious ombudsman.
By Ruzan Amirjanian
When the Hovhanissians, an elderly Armenian couple, went to visit Armenia’s human rights ombudsman on January 12, they found the doors closed with an official seal across them.



Like many people in Armenia, they were unaware that the ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdian, had been removed from office as of January 5.



“If that’s the way they treat the defender of human rights, what will happen to us?” asked the husband, standing by the closed door.



The case has raised questions about the government’s willingness to let the ombudsman operate as a truly independent figure free from political influence.



The human rights office was closed by the government after Armenia’s president Robert Kocharian formed an Interim Commission for the Management of the Apparatus of the Human Rights Defender on January 4 and promptly announced that the ombudsman’s term had expired and noted that the post of head of the ombudsman’s office – an administrative post – did not exist.



Kocharian issued a decree suspending the operation of the human rights office pending the appointment of a new ombudsman, and shortly afterwards officials arrived to seal premises, lock away documents including human rights petitions, and even remove the number-plates from official cars.



Alaverdian told IWPR, “The first to suffer are the people who have lost their right, as enshrined in Article 18 of the constitution, to appeal to the human rights defender; and those who have already applied to us, whose complaints are being considered and who are awaiting our reply.”



Many observers say the temporary closure has less to do with legal technicalities than with a prolonged and bitter row between the outgoing ombudsman and President Kocharian over the government’s human rights record.



The post of human rights defender was created in 2003 to satisfy Armenia’s obligations as a Council of Europe member. As the ombudsman could not constitutionally be appointed by parliament, Kocharian named the first incumbent, Alaverdian, who started work in 2004.



But Alaverdian soon showed she would not be pliable, and clashed publicly with the president. In February last year, she walked out of a government meeting discussing her post when Kocharian would not allow her to speak. Although she made several requests to meet him, the two did not have a single face-to-face meeting in 2005, a situation she described as “unacceptable”.



“The main reason for [Alaverdian’s removal] is in all probability the ombudsman’s annual report [for 2005],” Levon Nersisian, head of the Andrei Sakharov human rights centre, told IWPR. “Many people did not want the report published, as it will give rise to a host of questions. The authorities won’t like that.”



Nersisian said the government was especially angered by Alaverdian’s damning report on the Northern Avenue construction project, which cuts through the centre of the capital Yerevan. Her report criticised the way residents lost their homes, saying that in many cases they did not receive adequate compensation. Alaverdian asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the scheme.



Avetik Ishkhanian, chairman of Armenia’s Helsinki Committee, believes the authorities could not tolerate Alaverdian’s independent stance, “The ombudsman began to work in a way they hadn’t anticipated. It could not be – and was not – forgiven, and the response was typical of the executive and the authorities, who are capable of putting on a show of force and being proud of doing so.”



According to a law passed by parliament, the first ever ombudsman was to stay in office until 30 days after a new amended constitution came into force, when the post would be filled by a three-fifths majority vote in the legislature. That date coincided with parliament’s winter recess, so until it reconvenes in mid-February, the post is likely to remain vacant.



Last year, the ombudsman asked for the law to be amended to allow the incumbent to stay on until a new appointment is made so as not to disrupt the work of her office, but the government did not take up the proposal.



Alaverdian said she learned that an interim commission had been set up to replace her only when journalists told her, and had received no official notification.



“The president’s decree had the style of an order,” she told a press conference on January 11. “The impression was that its main aim was to deprive the ombudsman of an office and a car. The thing they didn’t do was issue an arrest warrant.”



She concluded, “I see it as a sign of helplessness. Instead of offering a constructive solution, the authorities take a destructive path.”



Alaverdian appealed to the Constitutional Court the same day that Kocharian issued his decree, and argued that it was unconstitutional. Her main legal adviser, Zhora Khachatrian, said the decree meant Armenia was unable to fulfil its constitutional duty to have a human rights ombudsman.



The court turned Alaverdian’s appeal down, in a reply signed by its chief of administration, Arushan Hakobian – the man Kocharian has put in charge of the interim commission managing the human rights office.



Hakobian told IWPR that the authorities had only been following correct procedures. “The ombudsman’s term expired on January 5, so the president saw fit to create a commission to manage the administration,” he said, adding that his temporary body would not take on any of the functions of the ombudsman.



Human rights activists say the row has weakened the authority of the ombudsman’s post in Armenia.



“Now every official will think, ‘What is the ombudsman? He can be removed at a moment’s notice,’” said Nersisian. “And society will be convinced that might is always right.”



Ishkanian added, “It will be a lesson for the next ombudsman, because whoever it is will have their predecessor’s experience as a visible reminder. It’s also a lesson to the public not to rely too much on a defender.”



Ruzan Amirjanian is a journalist with A1+ television.