Thursday, April 20, 2006

High Court Declares Yerevan House Demolitions Illegal

RFE/RL Armenia Report - 04/18/2006
By Ruzanna Stepanian

Armenia's highest court on Tuesday declared unconstitutional the government-sanctioned demolition of hundreds of old houses in downtown Yerevan but stopped short of obligating municipal authorities to give the properties back to their forcibly evicted owners.

The Constitutional Court ruled that a 2002 government decision that paved the way for the ongoing massive redevelopment in the city center violated several articles of Armenia's constitution.

One of those articles stipulates that private property can be confiscated by the state `only in exceptional cases involving overriding public interests, in a manner defined by law, and with a prior commensurate compensation.' The extremely controversial process, marred allegations of high-level corruption, has only been regulated by the government directive, however.

Government officials say it is based on provisions of Armenia's civil and land codes that give the state greater freedom to confiscate land against the will of its owners. The Constitutional Court said that those provisions are also unconstitutional and must be amended accordingly.

The verdict deals a serious blow to the credibility of the Armenian government which has insisted all along that large-scale construction which is rapidly changing central Yerevan is legal and fair.

Hundreds of local residents have been forced to vacate their mostly decrepit houses over the past two years. Many of them are unhappy with the amount of compensation paid to them by the state, saying that it was set well below the market value of their properties as a result of government corruption. Some have resisted eviction orders with hunger strikes and other extreme methods of struggle.

Their demands have been backed by human rights activities, opposition politicians and prominent public figures. Armenia's former human rights ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdian, was also vocal in her support for their cause, filing an appeal to the Constitutional Court shortly before her resignation last January. Alaverdian's pro-government successor, Armen Harutiunian, unexpectedly decided to stand by the appeal in February.

The court decision seems to be a largely moral victory for the disgruntled evicted residents as it is unlikely to entail any practical consequences. The court only ordered the Armenian government and parliament to bring the relevant legislation into conformity with the constitution and said nothing about property restitution or compensation.

The ruling was read out by Constitutional Court Chairman Gagik Harutiunian after five hours of deliberations by the panel of nine judges appointed by President Robert Kocharian and the National Assembly. It followed the final court hearing which saw Armen Harutiunian and Justice Minister David Harutiunian (no relation), who fought the government's corner, make their concluding remarks.

The justice minister, whose close relatives are reportedly involved in the redevelopment project, claimed that forcible house demolitions are a normal practice around the world. `How do cities and towns around the world develop?' he said. `In accordance with architectural master plans which can serve as the basis for alienating property.'

The human rights ombudsman, for his part, reiterated his view that the government has no legal right to single-handedly deprive Armenian citizens of their property. `Such matters are regulated by law,' he said. `Therefore they are the prerogative of the parliament, not the government.'

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