Lifers: To the light of freedom. The pardon commission does not pardon

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On June 29, 2019, when the RA Law on Amendments and Addenda to the Penitentiary Code of the Republic of Armenia entered into force, 43 life sentenced prisoners submitted a petition to the Distribution Commission with a request to change their punishment regime.

Based on these applications, 14 lifers were transferred from a closed correctional facility to a semi-closed one, and 14 of them are in semi-open and only one is currently in open facility. The latter is Arsen Artsruni, who has been imprisoned for 26 years.

This was reported by the Penitentiary Service in response to a written inquiry by Forrights.

“Out of the submitted applications, 29 were satisfied, 11 were rejected, and only 3 are currently under discussion,” the service added.

The picture, however, remains unclear in the case of lifers. Two years ago, after introducing the amendments to the Law on Pardon, a new hope was awakened in the lifers to return to freedom after some time. However, the picture here remained unchanged.

“After the adoption of the RA Law on Pardon on March 7, 2018, 24 convicts sentenced to life imprisonment filed a pardon petition, none of which was satisfied,” the penitentiary told Forrights, but did not provide grounds for refusal.

It is almost the same sad story in the case of parole. Since the years of independent Armenia, five lifers have been released early, two of them, Soghomon Kocharyan and Vahagn Marukyan, on the basis of illnesses.

Forrights spoke with Stepan Grigoryan, who was recently released on parole and spent more than 25 years in prison. He is one of the few convicts who was sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 32. However, even now he remembers with pain both the time of his arrest and the time between his death verdict and release.

“The arrest was an awful, terrible thing. I was in a police station for eight days, and about the same amount of days—in the Eghith [department], and then I was taken to the City Department for 15 days. Everywhere they beat and tortured me in their own ways. I slept on the ground, the handcuffs tied to the safety box at night and to the heater during the day. In those years, once you entered a police station, you were no longer a human being. It was just chaos. It felt as if you were in the hands of enemy,” Stepan recalls the events that took place years ago.

He was sentenced to death by the RA Supreme Court at the end of 1997 for participating in the murder. In 2003, by order of Robert Kocharyan, 43 convicts, including Stepan Grigoryan, were pardoned and their sentence changed to life imprisonment.

Stepan is one of the life convicts who fought publicly for his freedom. From 2017, he was waiting for parole, but it was delayed and regularly rejected by both the Penitentiary Service and the courts. Finally, the happy day came only on April 29 this year, when, by the decision of Armavir Region Court of First Instance Judge Armen Hovhannisyan, Grigoryan was released on parole:

“Penitentiary… Probation… Everybody presented positive testimonials about me. A number of deputies and public figures wrote letters of recommendation and brought them to court. They were all convinced of my proper conduct, they knew, they had already understood me. Even when a deputy met me in the prison, he was surprised and said, “What are you doing here? Why should a man like you be behind bars?”

Even after his release, Stepan does not forget about his friends in prison. He warmly remembers his cellmate Artur Mkrtchyan, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, with whom, according to him, he spent a whole life.

For Arthur and others, Stepan presented a number of proposals to the deputies, who promised to discuss them in the National Assembly.

“Most importantly, I have suggested that, after parole, the convicts should remain in custody not for ten years, but five years. The first two of those years they will remain in strict regime, for the rest, let the employer submit a characterization and description of the person to the court, which then can remove those unnecessary burdens of several years from the convict and release him,” Stepan said.

Stepan also thinks that it is wrong that the opinion of the Prosecutor’s Office plays a big role in parole. According to him, such a role is unacceptable.

“The prosecutor’s office should not have a say in this issue at all. Otherwise, now, the institution presents the convicts, gives positive descriptions about them, the Probation works with lifers, accepts, presents again with positive descriptions, the Prosecutor’s Office takes and objects. Why, do you even know these men? I have also presented this to the deputies, I hope these issues will be addressed.”

Rosa Vardanyan

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