ARMENIA: WILL KARABAKH BECOME ‘FATAL SHORE’ FOR ARMENIAN CONVICTS?
BY MARIANNA GRIGORYAN
Jan 17 2012
Armenia may start promoting an “Australian-style” model of development
for the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Britain, of course, first colonized Australia in the late 1780s with
ships loaded with prison convicts. The use of convict labor was seen
by British officials as a cheaper alternative to slavery for creating
the distant colony’s infrastructure.
Flashing forward to the present, lawmakers in Yerevan, the Armenian
capital, are expected to begin debate in the near future on a bill
that would give white-collar criminals the option of serving time in
prison or resettling in “free territories,” a term that many Armenians
believe refers mainly to Karabakh. The separatist territory broke
free of Azerbaijan’s control, with Yerevan’s assistance, in the early
1990s. Efforts since then to reach a political settlement between
Armenia and Azerbaijan have become stalemated.
Over the past two decades, demographic stagnation in Karabakh has posed
a national security-challenge for Yerevan. As a result, officials,
both in the territory and in Armenia proper, have supported a variety
of schemes, including a mass wedding, to encourage population growth
in and around Karabakh.
Pushkin Serobian, chair of the August 23 National Alliance,” a
non-governmental organization, was closely involved in the drafting of
the bill. He expressed confidence the measure would receive serious
consideration by parliament. He argued that allowing convicts to
resettle in “free territories” would address several social problems at
once – not only potentially bolstering Karabakh’s demographic profile,
but also improving conditions in Armenian prisons, keeping families
intact, and improving the odds that the convicts themselves would
once again become productive members of society after competing their
sentences. “I don’t think there will be any problem,” Serobian said,
referring to the bill’s prospects for passage.
“By resettling people with their families in the free zones, we would
prevent the final break-up of their families,” continued Serobian.
“The families would consolidate, while resettlement in frontier areas
would strengthen the border and its infrastructure.”
The bill indicates that only those convicted of non-violent crimes
would be eligible for resettlement. Bakur Karapetian, a writer and
advocate on behalf of Karabakh, estimated that 1,000 families could
be resettled in “free territories” under the provision. He told
journalists back in November during a news conference; “I’ve talked
to many convicts, and all of them definitely agreed to settle and
work in the areas the government considers appropriate for them.”
To some, such as political analyst Richard Giragosian, the proposed
legislation is far from a panacea. He questioned the potential
demographic benefits, saying that the measure does “nothing to create
jobs or economic opportunity, which are essential for any increase
in population.” More broadly, he contended that the bill, if enacted,
could damage to Armenian national interests by creating an impression
that Yerevan was intent on permanently possessing Azerbaijani lands
adjacent to Karabakh that are currently under Armenian occupation.
“It could be perceived as a decision to officially “occupy” the
Armenian-held areas, which until now, have not been officially
resettled or developed,” Giragosian said.
The resettlement aspect of the bill, to a certain extent, is
overshadowing the issue of prison overcrowding. According to the
data of the Ministry of Justice, there are 12 penitentiaries and one
alternative correctional institution in Armenia, housing over 4,500
prisoners. Most facilities are antiquated. Many also have high rates
of suicide. In addition, many prisoners, upon release, fall back into
a life of criminal activity.
“Correctional institutions need serious reforms,” said Arthur Sakunts,
a rights activist and head of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s office
in the city of Vanadzor. The bill has the potential to “change the
situation” concerning prison overcrowding, Sakunts added. At the same
time, it is in need of amending in order to more precisely define
the meaning of “free territories.”
“The bill should refer to Armenia’s territories; there are many free
territories here as well,” Sakunts said.
Hovhannes Sahakian, an MP and senior member of the governing Republican
Party, echoed a need for amending the bill. “This is a good idea, but
we should avoid territorial restrictions and propose an alternative
to convicts,” Sahakian told Eurasianet.org. “This must be done to
escape unnecessary speculations.”
Editor’s note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based