YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Citing “significant” steps taken by the Armenian authorities, the U.S. State Department has removed Armenia from a list of countries which it believes are not doing enough to combat human trafficking and aid its victims.
The department had for years kept Armenia on the “watch list” in its annual reports on cross-border transport and illegal exploitation of human beings around the world.
The Armenian government has scrambled to get the country out of the blacklist with a range of measures against the illegal practice and its most frequent manifestation: the recruitment and transport of women for sexual exploitation abroad. The government approved its second anti-trafficking program in late 2007 and upgraded the status of an inter-agency government council coordinating its implementation a year later. The council is now headed by Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgian.
The authorities in Yerevan have also substantially toughened punishment for human trafficking and cracked down on local prostitution rings sending women abroad and the United Arab Emirates in particular. The number of relevant criminal cases opened by the Armenian police has risen in recent years.
“The Government of Armenia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” the State Department said in its latest Trafficking in Persons report presented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. The report scrutinizes the efforts of 175 countries to tackle the problem over the period of April 2008 to March 2009.
The report notes that Armenian law-enforcement bodies prosecuted eight individuals for trafficking last year, the same number as in 2007. Four of them were convicted and sentenced to between 2 and 7.5 years in prison. None was given a suspended sentence.
U.S. officials have complained in the past that the Armenian police and courts are too lenient toward such individuals. In its 2008 report, the State Department stressed that Yerevan should ensure that convicted traffickers “receive and serve adequate jail sentences.”
One of the apparent reasons for Armenia’s removal from the “watch list” is state prosecutors’ decision last December to reopen a criminal investigation into the 2006 escape from prison of a convicted trafficker, Anush Zakhariants. There is widespread suspicion that Zakhariants, who is an Armenian-born Uzbek national, fled the country with the help of senior law-enforcement officials.
“This was an important step forward and results of this investigation warrant future monitoring,” the State Department said, referring to the prosecutors’ decision. It called for a “vigorous investigation, prosecution, and conviction of complicit officials” in this and other cases.
The department report praised the Armenian government for allocating, in its 2009 budget, $55,000 to one of the country’s two shelters for trafficking victims run by non-governmental organizations. Still, it said the government made only “modest progress” in protecting and helping victims.
“The government identified 34 victims in 2008 and police referred 20 victims for assistance, an increase from 17 victims referred in 2007,” said the report. “Foreign-funded NGOs assisted 24 victims in 2008.”