Interview: On a Mission to Expose Police Corruption in Armenia
After being falsely pulled over for speeding a few months ago and being harassed and kicked in the legs by a police officer, Dro, who is going by his first name for the purposes of this report, has been carrying a video camera with him when driving in order to protect himself from police officers who think they can bribe him, he said. His intention of filming was also to show local Armenians that they can stand up to police and demand their rights.
While corruption in Armenia is a significant problem, with Transparency International’s 2009 Global Corruption Report ranking the landlocked region 109 out of 180 countries on its list, road traffic and driver license corruption falls under that cloud.
A 2007 Global Integrity Report written by journalist Seda Muradyan explored this issue. “Experts blame the country’s penchant for corruption, rooted in Soviet times, which expanded into independent Armenia,” the report said. “The non-transparent work of the police also plays a role.”
“Corruption in the road traffic field is conditioned by lack of transparency … there are numerous reasons … the laws include discriminatory provisions, violations of human rights; this also provides the basis for corruption risks,” Hovhanisian said. “The laws contain ambiguous or unclear definitions, which enable the inspectors to interpret the laws at their discretion, which results in the conflict of interests and corruption risks.”
A 2005 report by Anna Saghabalian on armtown.com revealed that bribing Armenia’s traffic police is a regular, ordinary custom.
“A typical kickback for avoiding legal punishment for an alleged or proven violation of traffic rules is 1000 drams (just over $2). Officers patrolling streets or highways are allegedly obliged transfer a large part of that money to their superiors. Another source of illegal payments is “technical inspections” which each of an estimated 250,000 cars registered in Armenia must undergo once a year.”
Recently, President Serge Sargsyan demanded a tougher crackdown on government on corruption, as corruption-related prosecutions saw a 40 percent surge in Armenia, reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Born in Iran and raised in America, Dro moved to Armenia one year ago because he feels that it is his country.
“I see no point of living in a foreign country now that we have an independent country and specially if one is able to find a job here, have a successful business or live on previous investments or retirement money,” he said in an email interview. He took some time out to answer a few questions below.
Q. What prompted you to video tape the two policemen who stopped you?
A. Armenia’s traffic police department has a horrific history of stopping cars for false or no reason in order to obtain a quick bribe. Armenia’s drivers who mostly either don’t know their rights nor the driving rules because they have illegally bought their licenses rather than passing tests, are quick to give bribes. Although the situation with falsely pulling over drivers has much improved in the last couple of years, old habits do still existent in today’s police force.
Q. Why did they stop you, and why do you think they stopped you?
A. I think they profiled me for having a new pickup truck and a new a license plate number, assuming I’ll have money to spare them instead of demanding my rights and honesty.
Q. What is the police force like in Armenia? What is your general opinion of them?
A. I have to admit that in the past year or two, the level of traffic police work has been much improved in Armenia and it’s clearly noticeable in the lawful and organized driving in Yerevan. I wouldn’t dare drive in Yerevan a few years ago and you’d rarely see women drivers back then, because driving was lawless and chaotic. Today the situation is much different and in fact for the first time ever in Armenia, cars are now forced to stop for pedestrians crossing the intersection. However, there is still a lot of work left in order to get most of the police force to work correctly and ethically. There is also a big problem with some of the current traffic laws in Armenia which are intended for the police to apply the law in order to make money, instead of the law having an importance for safety or orderly driving. For example the most ridiculous law recently passed in Armenia which forbids drivers from smoking in cars, while of course smoking is allowed in restaurants, offices, some hospitals and no laws exist against underage smoking. In essence this new law is there for the police to make more money by either writing a ticket or taking a bribe, rather than for any health or safety reasons.
Q. Were you ever afraid while you were doing it? There was one point where you got out of the car, which as I’m sure you know in the U.S. you can’t really do if a policeman/policewoman stops you – how come you did that and how did you feel?
A. I usually get out of the car in order to watch the video of the incident in the police car. I’m not afraid of being taken into custody or them using physical force. The only thing I fear and am careful of is that they don’t go crazy and draw a gun.
Q. Was this your first run-in with the police in Armenia?
A. I’ve been coming to Armenia since 2000 and on my first experience being in a car in Armenia as a passenger coming out of the airport, I remember being pulled over for no reason. The airport used to be a favorite place for the police to pull over drivers with passengers, because those who flew indicated that they had money. Even back then as a passenger I would always warn my drivers ahead of time that I will not allow them to give a bribe and would usually do the arguing with the police until we were let go. Writing a ticket was almost unheard of a few years ago, you either paid a bribe or argued your way out.
Q. Why do you think it’s important for others (including the Diaspora) to see this?
A. It’s especially important for Diasporans who will be visiting Armenia to put aside the notion that “when in Rome do as the Romans do”. Diaspora Armenians that visit Armenia have a unique opportunity to help improve this country by demanding the same type of treatment and legal rights they have in Western countries, from Armenia. The best way we can improve this country is to help bring its standards up to the levels we’re used to in America or Europe.
Watch the video, “Armenia, Yerevan’s Corrupt Police Terror Continues.”