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Armenia: TV Show Prompts Human Rights Protests

A weekly crime report prepared by the Armenian Interior Ministry has for years been one of the most popular television programs in Armenia. Once broadcast only by state television, it now has prime-time slots on the country's two biggest private networks as well. Authors of the show see it as an effective propaganda tool that discourages many people from committing crimes. However, human rights activists and even some government officials say presenting suspects as convicted criminals before television cameras violates one of the fundamental principles of the due process of law.

Yerevan, 23 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The sound of a TV jingle entices millions in Armenia to watch one of the most popular programs concerned with "true" crime stories.

Participants of this television program are chosen against their will and get guilty verdicts even before standing trial. Often looking frightened and subdued, they are criticized for various crimes which they are accused of committing. A voice over declares that their guilt has been proven and will soon be confirmed by a court of law.

This is the essence of a show that has glued many Armenians to television screens for the past decade. The program -- called "02," the police hot-line number -- has grown so popular that slightly different versions are now broadcast by Armenia's three biggest television channels. One of them, Prometevs, does so four times a week.

For the Armenian police, whose public relations division produces the program, it is an important element of the fight against crime and a reason why Armenia has one of the lowest crime rates in the former Soviet Union.

But local human rights groups condemn it as a gross violation of the presumption of innocence guaranteed by the Armenian Constitution.

A typical "02" episode begins like this: "Police forces in the [Armenian] capital and provinces registered 17 acts of crime from December 11-12. Twelve crimes committed yesterday and in the past have been solved."

The presenter will then go on to give details of some of those crimes, showing and identifying individuals arrested for allegedly committing them.

Most of them admit to the charges in front of police video cameras, making their conviction by courts all but a foregone conclusion.

It is not uncommon to see bruises on the suspects' faces -- something human rights watchers say is a worrying indicator that law-enforcement authorities might be using ill-treatment to extract confessions.

In one such episode, a man is detained as a suspect in a robbery case: "The 38-year-old Vartan Tumanian was twice convicted of theft in the past. He was released on parole before fully serving his last prison sentence. But after spending some time as a free man, his fingers got itchy and he returned to his old business."

This shabbily dressed, unshaven man wearing a bandage under his swollen right eye is a typical "02" character. He is alleged to have burglarized a Yerevan apartment and escaped with $15,000 worth of valuables and other property. Tumanian, the television viewers are told, broke into the apartment through its balcony, using his "monkey-like dexterity."

Tumanian, it is said, refused to plead guilty. But that, the police reporter adds, does not matter as his guilt has been proven otherwise. The television audience is not shown any evidence.

Avetik Ishkhanian is the chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. He believes that the "02" program is itself beyond the law, as it runs counter to the Armenian Constitution, which stipulates that a criminal suspect "shall be considered innocent as long as his/her guilt is not proven in a manner defined by the law." That is, by a court.

"If they call this solving a crime, then what are the courts supposed to do? If there exists a program like '02,' maybe we don't need any courts. In a sense, this whole thing symbolizes the deplorable state of our judicial system."

The police report is also condemned by Hovannes Asrian, chairman of a commission advising President Robert Kocharian on human rights issues: "I think there can be no other opinion on this issue because the presumption of innocence is an internationally accepted norm which is upheld by our constitution and laws."

Mistreatment of detainees is seen by local and international watchdogs as the most common form of human rights abuses in Armenia. The New York-based Human Rights Watch, for example, charged in a January 2002 report that "the willingness of [Armenian] judges to admit coerced evidence abetted the routine police practice of extracting confessions through beatings and other forms of torture."

All this raises serious questions about the credibility of videotaped confessions shown on Armenian television. Besides, local human rights campaigners say that even if a person is really guilty of a crime, he has the right not to be exposed. Armenian judges, for instance, need defendants' consent to allow reporters to film and record court proceedings. Even convicted criminals can deny anyone permission to film them.

Mikael Grigorian, a top adviser to Armenia's interior minister, admits that there is a strong case against the legality of "02" reports. But he says public awareness is an important deterrent against crimes and should be maintained by the law-enforcement authorities: "I therefore believe that we should find, work out mechanisms that would be legitimate in terms of both covering the fight against crime and protecting human rights."

Like the Helsinki Committee's Ishkhanian, Grigorian thinks that police reporters should not identify suspects or show their faces on television. But with "02" remaining so popular, no changes in its style and format are likely to be made soon.