September 8, 2009
To: Diplomatic missions and international organizations in Armenia
International human rights organizations worldwide
We, the undersigned civil society organizations and civic activists, draw your attention to recent human rights abuses in Armenia with respect to the violation of children’s rights, suppression of freedom of expression and failure to ensure fair trial.
During April-June 2008, a group of young people worked as volunteers in Nubarashen Special School N11. This school was a beneficiary of the UN’s Ten Best Schools project. The young volunteers were engaged in renovating the computer room, teaching schoolchildren various subjects and skills, recording audio-books, etc. Through their work and interaction with children the young people observed and heard about multiple problems and abuses taking place at that school, including the following:
- Though the mentioned school is an establishment intended exclusively for children with special needs, in fact, it enrolled a number of healthy children, who at times of medical checks were instructed to pretend to have disabilities.
- Quality of food was bad and children were constantly underfed often preferring a piece of bread over the proposed meals. Leftovers were used to feed the school principal’s pigs, turkeys and dogs being kept on the school grounds.
- Sanitary situation was unsatisfactory. Children were taking bathes once in a week or even once in every two weeks.
- Child labor was used by the school principal and other personnel in their housework.
- Children were often treated brutally, sometimes being subject to corporal punishment by school personnel.
- Several cases of sexual abuse of children by one of the school’s teachers were reported.
The young volunteers made the above-mentioned information public. In November 2008, there were a number of video materials broadcasted by the Public Television Channel H1 about problems revealed at the school. As a result, some of the raised issues were addressed – children started taking bath more frequently and the quality of meals was improved. The teacher blamed for sexual abuse chose to leave the school “…to engage in creative work” – writing. Nevertheless, the issue of sexual harassment of children was not tackled.
The same month, the volunteers held a meeting with Bagrat Yesayan, then a Deputy Minister of Education and Science and Stepan Aslanyan, a Member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, both representing two parties of the ruling coalition. Subsequently, there was no adequate reaction by either institution. Meanwhile, by the end of 2008, the contract with the journalist – the author of video materials - was discontinued and her programs were closed on H1 because of the “economic crisis”.
Three months after the broadcast, the police opened a criminal case. Pre-investigation of it was accompanied with violation of procedural requirements. Police violated the required timelines for opening the case and used unjustified extensions. It focused on the testimony of only one witness, who under pressure from her teachers and parents was forced to withdraw her depositions. In the meantime, the second testimony was completely disregarded. Volunteers engaged in the proceeding as witnesses were not duly notified about the details of the criminal case. Their interrogations were accompanied by psychological pressure and derision by policemen.
From the very first day, pre-investigation was biased and concentrated on shifting the blame to the group of volunteers. In August 2009, the mentioned case was actually turned against the leader of the volunteer group Mariam Sukhudyan, who the police charged with a false report with the prospect of imprisonment for up to 5 years. The predisposed attitude towards the case culminated in a statement by the head of police Alik Sargsyan at a press-conference on August 21, 2009, where he clearly violated the principle of the presumption of innocence.
In summary, since raising the issue of ill-treatment and sexual harassment in Nubarashen Special School N11 there has been no proper reaction by Armenian state institutions, in spite of the fact that similar situation exists in similar boarding schools (e.g. mass media reported about abuses in Nubarashen Special School N18 and Vardashen Special Educational Complex). Instead, authorities have endeavored to cover up the real issues and blame those who dared to speak out about them.
With respect to the above-mentioned human rights violations there were a number of statements and petitions from various civil society groups to the authorities of Armenia demanding to stop the prosecution of Mariam Sukhudyan, ensure a fair and impartial trial and punish the real criminals. However, persecution of those who reported the crime and biased investigations are carried on. Furthermore, though new witnesses continue to appear in the mass media corroborating that abuses took place at the school, the police continues to ignore this new evidence.
Another demand of civil society is to establish a commission with the involvement of international and civil society representatives to examine the situation in special boarding schools in Armenia. Such schools are rather closed institutions and thus their problems remain largely unknown or disregarded by state institutions and the public. While ill-treatment and abuses in such establishments lead to the increased vulnerability of the enrolled children and contribute to their alienation from the society, they also increase the risk that they will engage in criminal behavior. As case studies show, children from boarding schools and orphanages are generally the first victims of trafficking.
Since November 2008, when the problems were first presented to the proper authorities, no concrete actions have been taken to address these issues. Instead, more efforts were directed to refute the mere existence of problems and defend the revealed malpractice. Only in early September 2009, after the public frustration at the pursuit of activists and undue performance of public authorities reached its culmination, Armen Ashotyan, RA Minister of Education and Science of the Republic of Armenia met the volunteers and expressed his interest and commitment in supporting public monitoring and to introduce reforms in special schools. Proper assessment of the already revealed problems and punishment of wrongdoings still remains unresolved.
We appeal to you, those who are located inside our country as well as those working abroad, to use your mandate and leverage to protect human rights and access to justice in Armenia. We are compelled to request your assistance in promoting our above-mentioned demands and anticipate your due consideration and response to our petition.
For more details please contact +374 91 433278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about Mariam Sukhudyan and the group of volunteers is posted on http://www.mariamsukhudyan.info/.
“Arena of Education” NGO
“Committee for Protection of Freedom of Expression” NGO
“Helsinki Citizens Assembly Armenian Committee” NGO
“Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor Office” NGO
“Helsinki Committee of Armenia” NGO
“Investigative Journalists” NGO
“Journalists’ Club “Asparez”” NGO
“Journalists for Human Rights” NGO
“Lawyers for Human Rights” NGO
“National Citizens Initiative” NGO
“People are the Masters of Our Country” Organization
“Rights and Freedoms Center” NGO
“Transparency International Anti-corruption Center” NGO
“Victims of State Needs” NGO
“We Plus” NGO
“Yerevan Press Club” NGO
“Youth for Democracy” NGO