Yesterday, November 27, a group hunger strike started in the Sevan penitentiary. received this information from the family mmembers of the convicts. The reason for the hunger strike became known to us today: The institution of gradual change of detention regimes does not work in Armenia: people are not be able to use their rights established by law, they remain in complete isolation for decades, 25-30 years, which is a gross violation of their rights.

“As a sign of protest, I am announcing an indefinite hunger strike against the violation of my rights and the rights of other people sentenced to life”, yesterday the leadership of Sevan penitentiary received several such applications.

The life prisoners who declared a hunger strike sent their letters of protest to the RA Ombudsman, the RA Prosecutor General, the government staff, the Minister of Justice, journalists, asking them to visit them, listen and present the issue. Their parents are going to demand admission from RA Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

The protest was also joined by other convicts who cannot go on hunger strike due to their health condition, but together with their fellow convicts, they raise the problem that has not been solved for years.

According to our information, a riot is also brewing in other penitentiary institutions, where there are convicts deprived of their legal right to soften the regime.

A law that gave hope

At the end of June 2019, the amendments to the Penal Code entered into force, which were supposed to change the lives of more than 90 life convicts locked up in penal institutions, to give them hope that release is possible, to be an incentive for improvement and correction.

This was how in those days, 4-5 years ago, the representatives of the Ministry of Justice explained to journalists the meaning of this revolutionary change.

Collective hunger strike in Sevan prison: Why does the state of the lifers not change?

According to the new law, after serving 15 years of the sentence, with positive behavior, a lifer can be transferred to a semi-closed correctional institution, after 18 years can be transferred to a semi-open regime, and after serving at least 20 years of the sentence, he can be transferred to an open correctional institution, i.e. spend only the night in the institution, and the rest of the time he/she can live at home or at work, enjoy previously forbidden pleasures: mobile phone, Internet, etc.

But the law didn’t work

The prosecutors of the Department of Control over the legality of the use of punishments and coercive measures have a harsh attitude towards convicts who have spent 20 or more years in prison.

One after the other, the decisions of the Allocation Committee of the Ministry of Justice regarding easing the regime of their detention are annulled. Some of the lifers have been on hunger strikes as a protest. But apart from the deterioration of health, they did not achieve any other results. It seemed that the velvet revolution had bypassed them, and the life convicts remained in Kocharyan’s reign. They go on hunger strike almost every month, sometimes, like this time, they go also on collective hunger strikes.

But the CCP is making progress

The news received by the was confirmed by the Penitentiary Service. We received the following clarification from Nona Navikyan, the press officer of the service. “Today, on November 27, seven convicts serving a sentence in the Sevan penitentiary of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Armenia announced an indefinite hunger strike in support of another lifer, whose transfer from the medium security zone of the penitentiary to the lower security zone was refused by the Placement Commission of the RA Ministry of Justice operating in the central body of the penitentiary service. The decision of the Commission was appealed by the convict in court, but his appeals were rejected by the courts of General Jurisdiction and Appeals, and the Court of Cassation did not accept it in its proceeding.”

Nona Navikyan disputes the claim of the convicts that some provisions of the new penal code of RA do not work or work incompletely; in particular, the provisions and legal acts related to moving the convicts to lower security zones. “With their complaint, the convicts are trying to generalize the rejection of one convict to all life convicts, creating a misconception about the fact that the law does not work. In response to the protest of the convicts, we should mention that, as in all the penal institutions, as well as in the Sevan penal institution, the transfer of the convicts according to security zones is carried out properly, within the limits of the law. In particular, during 2023, two life convicts were transferred from the mild conditions of the high security zone of the institution to the strict conditions of the medium security zone, and three life convicts were transferred from the mild conditions of the medium security zone to the strict conditions of the low security zone.

Currently, two of the 87 life convicts in the penal institutions of the RA Ministry of Health are serving their sentences in the strict conditions of the high security zone, 50 in the mild conditions of the high security zone, 14 in the strict conditions of the medium security zone, 16 in the mild conditions of the medium security zone, four in the severe conditions of the low security zone, and one in the mild conditions of the low safety zone.

The easing of security zones for life convicts indicates positive developments in the penitentiary system. This was also recorded by the delegation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment during its 2023 visit to the penitentiary institutions of Armenia,” reports the head of the public relations department of the Penitentiary Service.

“I am only being degraded, nothing else:” Arthur Mkrtchyan

But the truth is that after the change of the law, only four life convicts were released during the past four years: Arsen Artsruni, Stepan Grigoryan, Ashot Manukyan and Mher Yenokyan. If we take into account that, in 2018, before the adoption of the law, two life convicts were released, Vahan Marukyan and Karen Oganesyan, who were the first life convicts released, then it is unclear what the effectiveness of the new legal regulation is.

According to life convict Artur Mkrtchyan, the legislative change is just a game that provides an opportunity, but does not bring any positive change. If in the past there was just one body acting in determining the regime or safety zone, now the Resocialization Evaluation Commission has also been added, whose conclusion, as a rule, is subjective and cannot be overturned. “I am only being degraded, nothing else, and this is directly causally related to the unconstitutional nature of the new penal code; if it is cut from the root of good, it cannot bear good fruits. From the path of resocialization, we are once again transitioning to a punitive policy, which is a violation of the principles adopted by the RA government. Everything has become formal; we still haven’t come out of the Soviet bureaucratic quagmire. The reality is that, instead of the law to work, they are creating an impression of carrying out the plan. Everything happens on paper. They work with me on paper to form positive behavior in me and take a negative position on that behavior; they determine the high or low probability of my committing a crime on paper without justifying what they write; they form opinions about me based on such data that cannot be changed (for example, the nature of the crime committed) or are tens of years old and are formed by such “experts” who know me only on paper,” writes Artur Mkrtchyan, a life convict, in his open letter to the Prime Minister.

“It is obvious that there is a political decision not to release these people:” Zhanna Aleksanyan

We asked the head of the Journalists for Human Rights organization, human rights activist Zhanna Aleksanyan to comment on the response of the penal service, in which the fact that they have made regime changes for a few people in these four years from a strict regime to a moderate regime (which, by the way, do not differ much from each other and only prolong the process called “socialization”), is assessed as progress. The adopted laws for the release of life convicts do not work. The essence of the regime change law is to get people released, but they remain behind bars. There are several people on parole, but it is obvious that there is a political decision not to release these people. Everyone’s parole appeals are denied, although everyone of them has a high standard of conduct and good characteristics. The system doesn’t work. As for who and where they take people inside, does not change the lives of the convicts. All of the boys on hunger strike have positive behavior, and, when they say that the risk of their release is high, doesn’t it contradict the characteristics they gave?” the human rights activist asks.

PS: The cases of hunger strikes of life convicts are increasing. Just one month ago, on October 12, more than five dozen life convicts in the Nubarashen penitentiary declared a collective hunger strike, demanding the implementation of the law. Their relatives held a protest near the government building.

Syuzan Simonyan

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