Interagency Group Sows Seeds for Pretrial Justice in Armenia

The six fellows, from bottom left to right:
Ms. Tamara Baghdasaryan, Public Defender, Chamber of Advocates and Law Lecturer, Northern University of Yerevan,
Hon. Rubik Mkhitaryan, Judge, Criminal Appellate Court,
Ms. Arpine Sargsyan, Leading Specialist in Anti-Corruption Policy Development Division, Penitentiary and Anti-Corruption Policy Development Department, Ministry of Justice,
Hon. Mkhitar Papoyan, Judge, Criminal Appellate Court,
Mr. Arman Aleksanyan, Senior Investigator on Particularly Important Cases, General Department of Control over Activity of Territorial Investigative Departments, Investigative Committee,
Mr. Karen Bisharyan, Deputy Head of the Department of Investigation of Specifically Important Cases of the Prosecutor General’s Office

By Mridula Shrestha 

Excessive and inappropriate use of pretrial detention has corroded human rights, inverted the presumption of innocence and contaminated perceptions of the justice system in Armenia. In its 2017 human rights report, the United States State Department noted that over a third of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees - not surprising, considering that 95 percent of requests to impose pretrial detention, and some 93 percent of requests to extend pretrial custody, were approved in the first ten months of the year. As a matter of law, however, “the presumption is always of release,” as pretrial detention must be sufficiently justified and imposed only to prevent certain outcomes specified in the Criminal Procedure Code, such as obstructing investigations or absconding (Ara Harutyunyan v. Armenia, no. 629/11, ECHR 2016). Human rights reports also point out that Armenian authorities have sometimes subverted pretrial detention as a way to obtain confessions or reveal self-incriminatory evidence, and that extensive pretrial detention has been abused in politically motivated cases. In addition, pretrial detainees often have no practical opportunity to appeal the legality of their detention, and observers have called into question the conditions of detention and rights of the accused while in detention.

We seem to be in a rare moment, however, with an opening for meaningful steps towards reform. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Armenia violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to adequately justify pretrial detention, adding pressure to overhaul the system. In April 2018, the public took to the streets to overthrow the longstanding Republican Party in a nonviolent revolution that has brought new leadership to the country, partly on the platform of increased accountability. The new State Probation Service, under the Ministry of Justice, is also exploring alternative means to detention in the distinct, but related, probation sphere.

No single agency can end the the overuse of pretrial detention alone, but encouragingly, multiple criminal justice agencies in Armenia are joining forces to take it on. In September 2018, ABA ROLI welcomed its inaugural class of Criminal Justice Collaboration and Partnership (CJ-CAP) fellows, consisting of six accomplished professionals from five criminal justice agencies: two judges from the Criminal Appellate Court, a public defender, a prosecutor from the Prosecutor General’s Office, an investigator from the Investigative Committee and an official from the Ministry of Justice. ABA ROLI’s CJ-CAP Program, supported by the US Dept. of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Office of Criminal Justice Assistance and Partnership (INL/CAP), empowers small groups of criminal justice actors to effect sustainable change through a coordinated approach to tackling cross-sectoral criminal justice problems. Each year, one team of fellows (four to six professionals representing at least two different institutions) participates in a three to five-week intensive, collaborative fellowship program in the United States. The program includes academic and practical instruction relevant to the reform issues; visits with peer institutions and professional counterparts; and support from cross-sectoral teams of mentors experienced in collaborating with other agencies on similar challenges. Following the Fellows’ return to their home country, the Fellows receive continuing support to implement their reform project through reciprocal visits by their mentors to their home country.

The six fellows from Armenia used their diverse professional perspectives to complement and challenge one another’s understanding of the underlying causes of pretrial injustices, and to examine potential approaches to address them implemented here in the US. Throughout the jurisdictions we examined, we saw that the aspiration and responsibility to uphold the presumption of innocence and fundamental freedoms, and to administer justice and safeguard the public, pose universal challenges. We were privileged to scrutinize a diversity of potential solutions tailored to different communities and resources - from St. Mary’s County in Maryland, to the metropolises of New York City and Washington DC, to the states of Kentucky, New Jersey and Virginia.  Our civil society and government partners shared their not only their expertise and successes, but also constructively exposed shortcomings in our own pretrial systems, and provided optimistic models of incremental reform and interagency partnership across so many criminal justice sectors. By the end of the four weeks, with thoughtful assistance from their mentors from Kentucky, Tara Boh Blair (Executive Officer for the Kentucky Court of Justice, Administrative Office of the Courts, Department of Pretrial Services), B. Scott West (Deputy Public Advocate for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy), and Thomas B. Wine (Commonwealth's Attorney for the 30th Judicial Circuit), the fellows collaboratively drafted a plan for reform that includes the creation of an official interagency working group to address pretrial justice reform, the establishment of a pretrial services agency, and the development of an evidence-based risk assessment tool to help the justice system determine which suspects pose low risk of reoffending or not appearing for trial if released.

It promises to be a long and messy road ahead, with incremental successes and setbacks. But the premise of the CJ-CAP program is that a handful of people - not just anyone, but the right handful of leaders, thinkers, and doers from different agencies - can make great strides together towards criminal justice reform. Having seen our Armenia fellows in action wrestling these systemic, complex issues together, we could not be prouder to support them as our very first group of CJ-CAP fellows.

Shrestha is a former Senior Legal Analyst at ABA ROLI who worked with the inaugural CJ-CAP Fellows.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABA ROLI.