The United States has placed Armenia on its human trafficking “watch list” for a second consecutive year, citing the Armenian government’s failure to take tough action against prostitution rings and law-enforcement officials allegedly connected with them.
In its annual Trafficking in Persons Report released Monday, the U.S. State Department said Armenia remains a “major source and, to a lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation largely to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.”
“While the government increased implementation of its anti-trafficking law, it failed to impose significant penalties for convicted traffickers,” reads the report. “The government failed to vigorously investigate and prosecute ongoing and widespread allegations of public officials' complicity in trafficking.”
The report covering the entire world is a further blow to the credibility of Yerevan’s assurances that it is doing its best to tackle the problem. Armenian officials point to a toughening of punishment against the practice and a rise in the number of relevant criminal cases brought by law-enforcement bodies.
The Armenian Prosecutor-General’s Office estimates that criminal groups sent at least 140 Armenian women abroad, mainly to the UAE, for sexual exploitation last year. It says it opened 30 trafficking-related cases in the course of 2005, resulting in 14 prosecutions and 17 convictions.
The State Department dismissed these figures, saying that both Armenian prosecutors and courts remain too lenient towards traffickers. “During the reporting period, only a few convictions resulted in actual imprisonment; the remaining offenders received suspended sentences, corrective labor and fines,” says its report. “Lack of public confidence and allegations of official complicity continued to hurt the credibility of the government's anti-trafficking efforts.”
The report specifically mentions media reports that accused a senior prosecutor of closely collaborating with Armenian prostitution rings active in the UAE. A series of investigative reports that appeared in the Hetq.am online publication last year quoted several unnamed Armenian prostitutes in Dubai as saying that they and their notorious pimp paid the official, Aristakes Yeremian, thousands of dollars in bribes.
Yeremian strongly denied the allegations in an RFE/RL interview in April 2005. He said he met Armenian pimps in Dubai in September 2004 only to “question” and warn them against continuing their illegal activities. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in an official inquiry conducted by the Prosecutor-General’s office earlier this year.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian ordered the inquiry following an embarrassing “interim assessment” of the situation with human trafficking in Armenia which was released by the State Department on February 1. The document noted that “a government official, who has been frequently criticized by victims and NGOs for trafficking complacency, remains in his position within the Prosecutor General's anti-trafficking task force.”
The authorities largely ignored the problem of human trafficking until the State Department included Armenia in 2002 into its Tier 3 group of nations which Washington believes are doing little to prevent illegal cross-border transport of human beings and can therefore be stripped of U.S. economic assistance. Armenia was removed from the blacklist and upgraded to the Tier 2 category the next year after what the State Department described as “significant efforts” taken by its government.
However, the department went on to downgrade the country to a Tier 2 “watch list” in June 2005, citing the Armenian authorities’ “failure to show evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking over the past year.” Its latest report draws very similar conclusions.
Furthermore, the 2006 report expresses concern at a “dramatic” increase in profits reportedly made by the Armenian traffickers over the past year. It also notes that Armenian law-enforcement bodies and courts are often hostile toward trafficking victims. “Some victims continue to receive poor treatment during court cases, reducing the likelihood of future victims willing to come forward to testify against their traffickers,” it says.
(State Department photo: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presenting the report in Washington on Monday.)