The Rights Stuff

Victoria Prais

The Lawyer

Victoria Prais travelled to Armenia to train newly qualified judges
on the ins and outs of Article 5 of the European Convention on
Human Rights – and found encouraging signs that the legislation
is making an impact In June this year I was invited by the Council
of Europe to train Armenian judges in criminal procedure under the
European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and related extradition
issues. The training was to be co-sponsored by the Association of
­Armenian Judges.

I was both nervous and excited about going to Armenia. I had no real
prior ­expectations of what the country would be like and indeed
whether it would be safe.

I had worked in Kosovo for the UN ­peacekeeping mission and was used
to life in a tough environment. But I was pleasantly surprised to
feel entirely safe walking around the city on my own. The cityscape
is what you might expect to find of an ex-­Soviet republic: grand
marbled buildings, an aptly named Republic Square and imposing statues
of famous Armenians. The people, however, were wonderfully warm and

Armenia is a constitutional republic with a population of approximately
3.2m. I arrived following a turbulent six months for the country. The
new president, Serge Sarkisian, was inaugurated on 9 April ­following
presidential elections. Post-­election violence in March had earlier
led to a 20-day state of emergency being declared.

Armenia joined the Council of Europe in January 2001 and ratified the
ECHR in April 2002. My remit was to train a group of first-instance
judges on the general ­principles of Article 5 of the ECHR, which
provides for the right to liberty and ­security of person. The judges
had been recently appointed and their knowledge of the ECHR ranged
from non-existent to fairly competent.

My training focused on such issues as the lawfulness of detention, the
right to bail and the provision of safeguards for those in detention. I
delivered the training alongside the head of the international law
department from the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine, who
focused on ­extradition issues under Article 5.

There is a three-tier court system in ­Armenia, introduced on 1
January this year, that includes courts of first instance, the Court
of Appeal (criminal and civil), the Court of Cassation (similar to
the House of Lords) and a specialist economic court.

I soon discovered, as the training ­progressed, that some of
the current ­practices and procedures fell far short of being
compliant with Article 5. Pre-trial detention, for example, is a real
problem. The law provides that a suspect may not be detained for more
than 12 months, but some defendants were in pre-trial detention for
three or more years.

Convictions in absentia also raised ­problems for the judiciary. Some
30 per cent of detainees are, in fact, fugitives and wanted
persons. Such convictions are not per se inconsistent with Article
5 and do not conflict with the provisions of the ECHR. The judges
expressed concern, ­however, that making a decision to detain a
fugitive in his or her absence breached the terms of Article 5. We
examined the case law from the European Court of Human Rights for

I was greatly encouraged by the judges’ enthusiasm. I found them on
the whole to be interested and receptive to the training and they were
keen to understand the general principles and jurisprudence of the
ECHR. I was asked many probing questions on both ECHR jurisprudence
and the ­implementation of Article 5 in the UK.

My second talk focused on Article 5, ­control orders and terrorism
– my current area of specialisation at the Treasury ­Solicitor’s
Department. The judges were particularly interested to know how they
could implement the principles into their own domestic legislation
so as to be ­compliant with the ECHR.

So what is the future for the Armenian legal system? Changes do
need to be made to ensure compliance with European human rights
standards. These changes will not happen overnight and progress will
be incremental and take time. But the will is there to forge ahead
and the human rights discourse has started.

Victoria Prais is a lawyer at the Treasury Solicitor’s Department
specialising in ­terrorism and national security cases


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