Dead men walking in Armenia's prisons

By Karine Asatryan

They are still in jail although they have been pardoned. Since 2003, the decree of Robert Kocharyan, Second President of the Republic of Armenia has left 42 inmates locked up in Armenia's prisons with no hope of liberation. Each society must fight a crime. But Armenia does it its own way, keeping in jail Dead Men Walking, literally...

What is crueler : the death penalty with a perspective of freedom through an amnesty, or a swap of your seat on death row with an endless imprisonment for life, with no hope of Liberty ?

This philosophical question reflects the Kafkaian result of the decree of the President of the RA : 10 prisoners who escaped the death penalty with a Pardon, died in jail. The others who are still alive had a hope to be freed after the 2018 Velvet Revolution. During these days of liberalization of the entire society, the logic would have been that their cases should have been reviewed. They are still waiting in jail, and time goes by...

Banning Death Penalty is a principle coming from the Council of Europe : it is a matter of Civilization and it is the best way not to execute an innocent. In Armenia, there are convicts who were imprisoned based only on one testimony. But future events went a different way showing that some doors will still remain closed. By the way, How is it to be a dead man walking like our Armenian life termers?
Woman on the Other Side of Freedom
It's a cool Sunday morning in spring and a young woman is selling books in the canter of Yerevan on Northern Avenue. As compared to other working days, there are not so many passers-by but the woman is still there after some hours. The books are written by her husband Mher Yenokyan, condemned in 1996 to the death penalty. After 23 years in jail, Mr. Yenokyan didn't spend a single day home during their six-years marriage, although he has been pardoned since 2003. His wife Zaruhi Mejlumyan is a journalist and a lawyer. The profits of the sold books will go to the publication of a new one by the convict. The books bears the title "Girl, woman or happiness in prison" and is dedicated to Zaruhi, the woman he felt in love and marry with during his service in prison.
Man behind the Bars
Very few people in Armenia haven't heard the name of Mher Yenokyan fate. He is now the prison columnist for Hetq online edition, where every week he shares his reflections on prison, freedom and other topics with readers. His salary helped him pay his tuition fee, while in prison he earned a degree in Law at Armenian-Russian (Slavonic) State University. He is an author of six books.

It was back in May, 2018, when almost all the media outlets in Armenia covered the defense of his diploma paper in Nubarashen penitentiary institution.

Mher Enokyan in the photo
A news leak in 2019 revealed that he had issued an appeal for amnesty which was rejected. This news also appeared in the Armenian media spotlight .

The violation of the amnesty privacy policy not only led to heated discussions whether the life-termer should be released, but targeted his wife as well. They had met and got married in prison, when Zaruhi was investigating the case as a reporter.

Mher and Zaruhi in the court

Mher Yenoqyan was charged with the murder of his coursemate at the age of 21. In 1996, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. This verdict was then commuted to life imprisonment by the presidential decree in 2003.

Since then, Yenoqyan made several attempts to break out of jail twice (in 2004 and in 2009) together with his cellmate. He later referred to these escapes as a desperate attempt to attract the public attention to the life-termers destiny.

Yenokyan is struggling to have his case reviewed, as he considers himself to be a hostage claiming that he "had been sentenced on the testimony that had been changed four times, without any substantial or indisputable evidence through the severe violations of investigation procedures."

Mher Yenokyan is confident that he would be at liberty or wouldn't have lost his hope for release if there hadn't been the presidential decree issued by Robert Kocharyan, 2nd president of RA to commute a death sentence to life imprisonment.

History of a Kafkaian Pardon

Back in August 2003, the RA presidential decree N ՆՀ-103-Աdated 01.08.2003 granted 42 convicts pardon by commuting their death sentences to life imprisonment. The Government considered this step to be a commendable one that would lead to the general welfare of the convicts. However, this action was not welcomed either by the convicts nor their family members who started campaigns of protest against it.

In October 2003, Armenia abolished the Death Penalty to comply with the standards edicted by the Council of Europe, that forbid member nations from maintaining capital punishment. However, there was one "but" …

Since Armenia's Independence in 1991, no convict had been executed and the ones on death row were hoping for release by pardon.
"The previous Criminal Code stated that if a convict on death row was granted a pardon, then they could be sentenced to more than 15 years of imprisonment. The imprisonment, however, could not exceed 20 years. Hence, the maximum number of years for a prison sentence was 20 years", says Robert Revazyan, who was Yenoqyan's defense lawyer in 2012 and appealed the presidential decree.

Robert Revazyan in the photo

Yenoqyan's appeal was rejected by the Court. Though Robert Kocharyan was not any more the president in 2012, Robert Revazyan had anticipated the rejection, as "Judges are appointed and dismissed by the President, hence no judge could go against the President."

Robert Revazyan still believes that Robert Kocharyan's decree was not an act of pardon, reinstating a new sentence instead, leaving to the court the burden of this exclusive authority of releasing the convict.

It is interesting to note that while capital punishment was abolished in other post-Soviet countries, where the presidents granted pardon to the convicts on death row, it was only in Armenia and Azerbaijan that death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Kocharyan couldn't have sentenced me to life imprisonment

The Armavir penitentiary is located about 25 kilometers east from Yerevan. We enter the Jail's Library where our interview with an inmate was planned. Arsen Arstruni, 52 years old, the tall man, had been already waiting for us.

After getting Arsen Artsruni's consent, it took two months until the Penitentiary Service of the Ministry of Justice allowed this interview. Arsen Artsruni is one of the 42 survivors facing execution, whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the 2003 presidential decree.

For the first time in 25 years, he agreed to give an interview before a journalist's video camera.

Everybody knows that Robert Kocharyan's decree did not comply with the legislation and had detrimental effects. No matter whether the death penalty is a more severe punishment or life imprisonment, one cannot be punished by a punishment that did not exist at the time of the committing of the crime".
Arsen Artsruni
a life-termer
Arsen Artsuni in the photo
Artsruni had been sentenced to death penalty for the well-known Dro case of political prominence in Armenia. Back in the 1990s, he was arrested on the charges of being member of a secret armed group named "Dro", that was allegedly the initiative of the then opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). He has been claiming for years that Robert Kocharyan did not have the right to commute his sentence into another one, of life imprisonment. He believes that the discussion should not revolve around the issue which is harsher: death penalty or life imprisonment but should bring to mind a certain legislative document.

"Robert Kocharyan had one primary reason not to consider commuting death penalty to life imprisonment, the law on the enforcement of the criminal code stating that that those sentenced to death penalty can't have their sentence commuted to imprisonment for life."

The presidential pardon by Decree ՆՀ-103-Ա was preceded by the Law on Enforcement of RA Criminal Code on 18 April , 2003. The law not only listed the cases when death penalty could be commuted to imprisonment for life but also highlighted the exceptions.

Arsen Artsruni quotes the exception to the law which runs as follows: "The provisions of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Armenia, adopted on April 18, 2003, on the abolition of the death penalty do not apply to persons who, prior to the entry into force of this Law, committed aggravated murder, a terrorist act, and rape of a minor."

Arsen Artsuni was found guilty on the charges of premeditated murder based on the Criminal code of 1961 and was sentenced to death penalty by the verdict of Supreme Court on 10 December, 1996. He claims that his trial was subjective and that the verdict was reached out of political considerations.

He claims that his trial was subjective and that the verdict was reached out of political considerations:

"Those who followed the trial realize that Dro was not a court trial. It was a political struggle between the first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the forces that supported him and Armenian Revolutionary Federation."

"I was sentenced to death penalty solely out of the charges of repeat offence."
Arsen Artsruni
a life-termer

In 2011, when the Criminal Code was amended and repeated conviction of the person for the same crime was prohibited, Arsen Artsruni turned to the court again confident that the charges against would be dropped.

"It was crystal clear that there were no more grounds for me to serve the maximum term." However, the court rejected his appeal."

Arsen Artsruni decided to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights, contesting a "politically motivated decision".

The European Court has not yet reached its verdict. Reportedly, the decision will have been made by January, 2020.

Pardon and Punishment
"Did the President of Republic of Armenia is empowered with the right to Pardon? Yes, that was within his authority. Did he have the right to pass a life sentence? This is the main issue."
Avetik Ishkhanyan
The President of Helsinki Committee of Armenia
From a legal and Human Rights point of view, Avetik Ishkhanyan, the president of Helsinki Committee of Armenia, contest the Constitutional hability of ex President Kotcharian to decide with a decree of a new punishment devoted to the Judicial Branch.

"Life sentence seems to be more aggravating especially after the pardon, as the Criminal Code states that when granted pardon convicts on death row should have their cases reviewed by the court and be given a maximum term of 15-20 years."– Avetik Ishkhanyan says.

"Society tended to think that the prisoners, especially those sentenced to life imprisonment were monsters. In some circles, they would even dispute the necessity of having capital punishment abolished."

Most of the life-termersstill alive, including the
ones condemned after the 2003 decree,have tried to dispute their life sentence to death imposed by the Presidential decree.

"Given the fact that the courts in Armenia were not independent, no judge would dare to go against the Decree. All the attempts to have the cases reviewed by the courts turned out futile."- Avetik Ishkhanyan says.

The attorney believes that the life-termers had long been ignored by the government, which also
led to society adopting the same disposition towards them.

In 2011, the amendments to the Criminal Code also circumvented those serving a life sentence, Avetik Ishkhanyan recalls.

Avetik Ishkhanyan in the photo

On 23 May, 2011, the National Assembly of Armenia passed a law on making changes and amendments to the criminal code thus envisaging maximum punishment not exceeding 20 years of imprisonment instead of initially fixed 15 years.

The change was rationalized by Aghvan Hovsepyan, the then Prosecutor General, who said that his court experience showed that it was hard for the judges to make right decisions.

"Our criminal policy set disproportionate differences between the maximum number of years of imprisonment and life imprisonment. Life imprisonment was imposed if the punishment had to exceed 15 years of service in prison. At present, the number of life-termers has reached 99 (data of 2011). Again, that's a big number. In most cases, when returning the verdict we were unable to develop an individual punishment to fit the extent of crime.
Aghvan Hovsepyan
Prosecutor General of the RA (2007-2013)
" This seemed to be an obvious decision and it could be embraced but didn't this imply that those who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by this time could apply to the court to have their cases reviewed? This was a mitigating factor and the circumstances had changed. However, all the pleas got turned down." – says Avetik Ishkhanyan.
91 Life-termers

None of the life termers serving in penitentiaries in Armenia were sentenced to life imprisonment after 2013.

Valeri Permyakov, a Russian serviceman, sentenced to life on charges of murdering a family of seven people in Gyumri, is serving his sentence in Russia.

Data of 15 May, 2019 state there are currently 91 life termers serving their sentence in Armenian penitentiaries.

In EU member countries, per 100, 000 population this rate is 3.06 and is considered to be a high indicator. high indicator.

For comparison, consider France, where the proportion of citizens serving life sentences is far lower at just 0.7 per 100,000, while in Russia the rate is only 1.2 per 100,000.

The most senior life termer is 72 years old, while the youngest is 28. Armenia has never had a female life termer.

Since 2003, six life termers have been released. Two of them were released under medical circumstances, as they were suffering from serious diseases. One was released on parole, three had been involved in Mataghis case and had their verdict overturned, as the case was reopened. (The crime happened in Mataghis village: hence the name of the case)

25 life-termers have already served 20 years out of 25 which implies that they can be already be granted official pardon. One life-termer is still in prison after having served 27 years of imprisonment.

In 2018, 32 life termers applied for amnesty but all the pleas were turned down.

A daily amount of 11601 drams (22 EUR) is spent to address the needs of 91 life termers.

Life is short in prison

Life prisoner Manuk Semerjyan had served his twenty years by 2011 and applied for parole. His request was turned down, as he hadn't paid 56.000 drams (106 euros), the amount required for an early release. In Armenia, the monthly average earning is 150€. The court did not consider his good behavior nor his medical condition. He was only moved to a semi-closed institution after 21 years behind bars.

He passed away a few months later, on the last day of December, 2012, at the age of 45, with no income and unable to make any payment.

This was when human rights activists raised the issue of the life-termers without money. Locked up forever with no hope, these people have no incentives to return to society, to improve or demonstrate any positive changes in their behavior.

The absence of work is also mentioned in the report submitted by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment expressed its concern to Armenia over the lack of employment of life termers.

Daily Life is hell for them : life-sentenced prisoners are not offered any out-of-cell activities other than a 1 to 1.5 hour per day outdoor exercise, which is now offered every day, including on weekends. There is still no access to work, education, or vocational training apart from distance learning courses (which were being followed by three life-sentenced prisoners only), nor sport. Altogether, the fate of these prisoners is to be locked up in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, the only occupation being watching television, playing board games or reading books.Who can survive this ?

The committee published their recent report on Armenia at the end of 2016, summarizing their October 2015 visit. The committee is planning its next visit in 2019.

From the civilian society, the pressure is mounting to end the inhuman treatment.

A.D.Sakharov Armenian Human Rights Protection Center" NGO back in 2015 produced their expert opinion on 01.08.2003. ՆՀ-103-Ա presidential decree in the following report:

"There have been breaches of the constitution and legislation but as reality shows, Republic of Armenia does not want to admit that the former president of Armenia made this mistake. Nor do they want to correct it. As the 42 remaining inmates jailed for life, have seen "their punishment instead of being reduced to a less severe one was made even harsher."

Conditions worsened for 42 life termers
" Granting pardon is perceived as a humane step taken by the President of the State implying that life termer will see better changes in his status, however, thepresidential decree did not introduce any changes into the life of 42 life termers, as their punishment instead of being reduced to a less severe one was made even harsher."
The president acted as the court
" granting pardon, the RA president through his decree passed a judicial sentence deciding on the type of punishment, something that is within the power of the court." (RA Constitution, Code of Criminal Procedure)
Breach of the Constitution and Legislation
"There have been breaches of the constitution and legislation but as reality shows, Republic of Armenia does not want to admit that the former president of Armenia made this mistake. Nor do they want to correct it. "

The hope for a "Velvet"


Artak Zeynalyan: Individual approach to life termers

When the Parliament was discussing the draft law on Amnesty back in 2018, Alen Simonyan, member of the parliament, asked Artak Zeynalyan, the then Minister of Justice why he had turned down a request of eleven MPs to end the or deal of the remaining life inmates.

In their official letter, the MP's had proposeda special amnesty program for the life termers, but their request was turned down, based upon the usual political fear of being accused of leniency toward criminals.

Artak Zeynalyan explained then that "there will be an individual approach to life termers. The PM announced that the present government considers it wrong that life termers get released through amnesty.However, they afford the right of being released on parole and being granted an official pardon".
However Zeynalyan assured that the official pardon was granted on 1 November, 2018, it bypassed the life termers.

As the Prosecutor General's PressOffice reports, as of May 17, 2018 under the RA Law on Amnesty on Criminal Cases on the occasion of the 2800th Anniversary of the Foundation of Erebuni-Yerevan and the 100th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the First Republic of Armenia, which came into force on November 1,646 convicts were released from penitentiaries and 81 of them have committed new criminal offences.

Legitimate expectation
"The verdict of life imprisonment implies something conventional and the person who is sentenced to a term of life imprisonment should have a legal expectation, a legitimate expectation that some time later he should be released, he may be released.
This arises motivation to live and also to exercise lawful conduct. It is very significant since life imprisonment does not mean to make someone die in prison
." – said Artak Zeynalyan, the Minister of Justice.

"Legitimate expectation" is the application of the following two legal institutions: putting on parole and the institute of pardon. This is as well is the individual approach declared by our authorities, when the conduct, dangerousness, of the given detainee are being assessed.
The other variant for a life-termer to be released is the parole petition. There have not been any precedents of releasing a life-termer either during the rule of the previous authorities or the acting authorities.

According to the Penitentiary Service of the Ministry of Justice 32 out of 91 life-termers presented parole petition in 2018 but none of them were satisfied.

Asked about his administration toughness, the Justice Minister explained that:

"Parole decision is an individual legal act and there is no obligation to explain, comment and make clarifications on the grounds of making that decision. It is somewhat subjective and is carried out based on inner conviction."

In Armenia, the process follow the usual path of Pardon, all the way up : the Parole Commission presents the conclusion to the Prime Minister, the latter expresses his position to the President, who, in his turn, makes the decision.

Taboo or victim's interest
Arsen Artsruni, during our interview with him, has an explanation of the ambiguity of the Velvet Government of the Prime Minister Pashynyan.

"We had a meeting with the Minister Zeynalyan last year in "Armavir" penitentiary institution. The minister proposedto one of the life-termers to write a parole petition. This inmate , Ashot Manukyan has an excellent record, in a sense that he is a student of HEI, and has published a poetry book, and had also found common ground with the victim's successors and they forgave him".
However, like in the absurd theatre Godot did not turn up, this "perfect" inmate petition was declined.
Arsen Artsruni was hopeful that "the Minister was convinced that in case of such life-termers it is essential to immediately solve the problem of release with the help of parole. It was encouraging for all of us".
During his meeting with Mr. Zeynalyan, the Ministerasked him if he has found common ground with the victims"

Arsen Artsruni answered that "a dialogue between me and the victims' successors should be initiated by the parole system, and not whileme and the other life-termers are being detained in prison:

"How I could get in touch with them, whether they would like to remember that traumatic period of their life, particularly when during the days of the parole trial, when they were invited to court, they did not appear, consequently, it should be regarded as they would not mind if I would be release".

Based on such behavior of the Minister I could conclude only one thing that I am a part of the list of those detainees who are destined to confinement and death in prison.

Arsen Artsruni
a life-termer
However, Arsen Artsruni has decided to present his parole petition to Mr. Pashinyan and addressed a well-argued application last October. "Indeed, I wanted to believe that something has changed in Armenia", he explained.

But alongside with the others his application was turned down on no grounds at all.

Is a Justice system build to prevent individuals to commit other crimes, in order to release them one day and put them back on tracks of life in the Society, or a vendetta to vindicate the victims,as a lot of Citizens imagine, up to the death penalty, as in the Bible principle of "An Eye for an Eye" ? This is the central problem that all modern democratic societies are facing nowadays.

The “Armavir” penitentiary in the photo

In Armenia, the Constitutional Court mentioned in one of its decisions that within common legislative policy framework of release from punishment, compensation of damage caused to the victim by the crime is not considered as a crucial prerequisite without which it is impossible to release a person from punishment. Nevertheless, the victim's rights seem always put forward until today.

The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Armenia in the photo

Beside, life-termer Arsen Artsruni considers that there is also a taboo, blocking the release of pardoned life-termers. The Attack of the Armenian Parliament on October 27th, 1999, is still in everyone's mind.That day, at 17:00,a commando of five men headed by Nairi Hunanyan broke into the session hall of the Parliament and shot Karen Demirchyan, the speaker of the National Assembly, Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan, and other officials and MPs. The attackers were sentenced to life imprisonment.

"Because of October 27 case, maybe there are other cases as well, but there is a kind of a taboo that no positive attitude should be allowed towards life-termers. You could tell me, of course, that there are a lot ofsevere crimes and they should not be released, but there is no reason to mix everything together. The law says that an individual approach should be applied, and the application of individual approach is the whole process of parole. These people deal with so much paperwork, analyse those items one by one, mark them, draft their paper and after hard worksubmit it to the department, and the department comes up with a negative response. Why is this so? Nobody knows."
— Arsen Arstruni, a life-termer
"When serving the sentence in the context of parole, within the framework of Criminal Procedure Code, taking into account victim's best interests, we have predicted that within the scope of the discussion of this matter the victim should as well be a mandatory participant in court. If upon notification, the victimdoes not appear in court, the case can still be discussed. Nevertheless, we have predicted that the victim by exercisingtheir legal interest can become part of that trial and voicetheir opinion."
Arpine Sargsyan, representative of anti-corruption and penitentiary policy development department, Ministry of Justice
After the verdict is passed, the victim should not have any problem relating to the further fate of the detainee; it is already a state matter. The state should think about the victimsby providing psychological, if required financial assistance to them, but it should never be concerned about the detainee's future.
-Avetik Ishkhanyan, the president of Helsinki Committee of Armenia
90s were hell for life-termers
"If we compare life in prison today with that of 90s, we shall see a great difference since in the 90s people got just killed in prisons. You will be terrified if you read the stories of life-termersor justhear them speaking of those times. They were treated like in their worst nightmares. And this can be another argument in favour of their release, as the 90s were mere torture and hell for them.

RA Penitentiary Service of the Ministry of Justice states that 19 life-termers died in RA penitentiaries between 01.03.2003 and 01.05.2019. For 10 of them, capital punishment was commuted to life imprisonment.

In accord with the RA CPC Article 432, a person can be released if a serious disease impedes his service. One of the two released prisoners, Soghomon Kocharyan, passed away just after a month of his release. Another life-termer Vahagn Marukyan who was released at the end of 2018 suffers from mobility problems. He turned to court to havehis case re-opened.

Data of 15 May, 2019, 30 out of former convicts on death row are serving their sentences in RA correctional institutions.

Picture shows death-row inmates' death in accordance with dates

The Fate of the Life termers, between Politics and Constitution

The President, the Government and 1/5 of all of the Members of Parliament can apply to the Constitutional Court to decide on the compatibility of the presidential decree with the Constitution.

It means that 27 MPs can propose a motion. But none of the two non-ruling fractions of the National Assembly of the 7th legislature has that number of MPs. 88 out of 132 seats belong to "My step" ruling fraction.

"Concerning the MPs of "My step" fraction we can say that it depends on Nikol Pashinyan's wish. But whether he wants this or not, I can't say." – says Avetik Ishkhanyan, President of Helsinki Committee of Armenia.

Life-termer Arsen Artsruni who has been in prison for already 25 years doesn't know anymore what to do.

"No life-termer knows what to do to get released as unlike life-termers all the rest of the prisoners get released after serving their term. Even after 22 years they get released. Their term comes to end and they get released. In case of life-termers, it is not clear. Now I want to know precisely what I should do…

If there is a stone weighing 100 kg which I should carry, I'd better start doing physical exercises to be able to carry it."

Arsen Artsruni in the photo
Last June, Rustam Badasyan, the newly-appointed minister, has only promised to continue making reforms in the judicial system following the Government agenda. With no word about the Life Termers, the never ending story of modern Armenia.

He never received the answer to his question from the Minister of Justice Artak Zeynalyan, who had promised some changes in the field.
The Justice Minister resigned on June 7th,
having been in the postfor over a year.

Irrespective of the authorities' attitude, the life-termer was trained for a psychologist in prison and continues his post-graduate studies in "Urartu" university, getting ready to earn his PhD.

The theme of hisPhD thesisis the psychometrics of the detainees. He assures that the courts will be more objective if they take into consideration this factor when returning verdicts.

Arsen Artsruni in the photo

By the way, the authorities of the correctional institution did not let us see the cell which he shares with another life-termer Ashot Manukyan. Ashot Manukyan is also doing a distance course on psychology.

The cell is designated for four people but there are only two of them. Arsen Artsruni jokes that there are so many books here that there is not enough space.
The life-termer has a huge library,but not a favourite book.

He says, "Different books provide different meaningson different days".
Author: Karine Asatryan
Cameraman: Hovhannes Karapetyan
VIdeo editor: Hranush Arabyan
Photo: "A1+"TV, "Photolur"

This production was supported by the OPEN Media Hub with funds provided by the EU.

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