- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 January 31, 2003 

Policing the Police: NGO hopes to curb bribery while defending drivers' rights

When motorist Tigran Aloyan won a court case and had his driver's license returned, a State Traffic Inspection tradition - to confiscate a license for any driving violation - was broken.

Before last September, traffic police could confiscate a driver's license at will, even illegally, citing any of 43 types of violations. But since Aloyan's trial, police are obeying the law which stipulates only seven infractions by which a driver's license may be taken.

A policeman stopped Aloyan near the Opera House and charged him with a violation for having curtains in his back window.

It is customary, though illegal, that police throughout Armenia expect motorists to pay bribes to be let go.

"He realized that I wasn't going to pay him and he wrote a penalty ticket and then he confiscated my license," Aloyan says. "I said 'Why are you taking my license. If you don't give it back I'll take it back by means of the court."

The policeman assured Aloyan that no such case had ever gone to court in Armenia.

But through the help of the "Achilles" Union, a Non-Governmental Organization, Aloyan won his case last July, as the court found that his license had been illegally taken, and the Traffic Inspection Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was ordered to return the license.

The Union, founded two years ago to protect drivers' rights, has won four such cases and has established a precedent in Armenia by placing inspectors in the role of defendant.

"Drivers got used to paying a bribe for taking a license back," says deputy head of "Achilles" Vladimir Ghazaryan. "When an inspector sees that a driver is arguing and is educated then he won't stop him again. And now after those trials when an inspector sees that a driver protests the more so he won't stop him again, as he doesn't want to go to court and stand there perplexed as he knows neither law nor something else."

Having a license confiscated creates problems most drivers will pay to avoid.

To retrieve a license, a driver must go to the Department of State Traffic Inspection of Yerevan Police, located on the edge of the city. There, together with approximately 200 other drivers he must attend a session that lasts two hours after which he is charged with a fine, usually 10,000 drams (about $17).

Then the driver must go to another office to pay the fine, then return with a receipt showing that he has paid.

Most drivers simply prefer to avoid the hassle by discretely slipping about 1,000 drams to the inspector at the stop.

Ghazaryan says drivers have gotten used to paying bribes."I am a lawyer and principally do not bribe," Aloyan says. "I stand for hours and argue with an inspector, but do not give money. But I can't tell everybody not to give money, especially, if transport is the driver's way of earning a living. For example, for me it's okay not to drive for two months. Someone else cannot do that, and so if he or she doesn't give money then he or she will always have problems with STI."

If it is rare to find someone who doesn't pay the bribe, it is impossible to find an inspector who doesn't make his living off bribes.

According to official data, there are about 130,000 traffic violations per year in Armenia.

"Achilles" estimates that each inspector registers about 0.7 tickets per day. However, inspectors are stopping motorists every minute of every day, for the purpose of extorting money.

One official from the STI, who wanted to stay anonymous, said that inspectors stand in the streets for hours for a salary of about $35 a month (only about $25 until this year). Consequently, they cannot live without accepting bribes.

"I cannot tell whether there are people who take money or not, but I can say that none of the inspectors has a right to," says head of the Republican Police Propaganda Department, lieutenant colonel Eduard Kostandyan. "If we have the whole legislative portfolio and technical provision, then it will be difficult to circumvent the laws. Last year the new government established traffic rules (up to now the Soviet rules were in force). But five to six legal acts and laws haven't been passed yet."

According to the survey made by "Achilles" (financed by Eurasia Foundation), 60 percent of drivers find that inspectors make use of the valid order. The organization proposed amendments to the laws consisting of 20 points that can lower the possibility of bribing. Particularly, the first point suggests empowering only the judge with the right to confiscate someone's driving license.

"The former way of things and flaws in the legislation are the reason for inspectors to take money and give it to higher instances," says Ghazaryan. "First, the legislative framework has to be improved. Second, inspectors' salary should be increased to the amount at which they will have no need to accept bribes. Third, the State Traffic Inspections should be technically re-equipped. For example, there should be special equipment to register whether the car has passed under the red light or not. And not like an inspector says you have passed under the red light and that's all. The top layer shouldn't be so rotten and take money from the bottom - inspectors. They do not implement these changes, as high ranking officials have interest in that."

Last year 22 inspectors were discharged, 29 were demoted, and 136 got disciplinary punishment for violations of their positions. Nineteen percent of the traffic inspection's staff got punishments of different levels. Annually, about 30 percent receive some form of reprimand.

"We haven't resigned ourselves to bribery, there is a serious campaign running," says lieutenant-colonel Zhora Barsamyan, Head of the Staff Analytical Department of the State Traffic Inspection. "But it is not being abolished basically, because one should abolish the reasons first. There are so many authorities a law has to go through to be adopted, the process lasts several years. And there is no money in the budget for technical re-equipment and increase of the inspectors' salaries."

"Achilles" destroyed one more tradition - the requirement to have a notary-registered license for driving some other person's car.

Aloyan refuses to pay bribes.In another "Achilles" case, the Nork Marash Court of First Instance ruled that STI was wrong to take a driver's license and charge a 5,000 dram fine. The Civil Code, the court ruled, does not require a notary signature in all cases.

Since September inspectors have been accepting letters of attorney without notary certification. Before that drivers were waiting in long lines and paying 20,000 drams to certify letters of attorney by the notary. "Achilles" has established "Ekotaks" Ltd. which makes letters of attorney for the drivers for 1,500 drams. Three other companies also have started the service.

Barsamyan maintains that there are two different laws - one requiring a notarized copy and another that doesn't.

"We are not against 'Achilles' pointing to our shortcomings, but they intentionally discredit us, which I don't think is correct," Barsamyan says.

Last August "Achilles" started direct discussions with the governing body of the STI (before that one had to apply to the PR Department of the State Police in written form to have an interview with an official or to introduce a proposal, and only then he or she could get a permission for the meeting. At present this order is valid for journalists and other NGOs.)

The organization in cooperation with STI held a competition and gave an award for "Best Driver". However STI refused to hold a competition for defining the "Best Inspector" as suggested by "Achilles".


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Photo of the week: Talk Time
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Talk Time

In 19 days Armenia will elect a President. Until then voters will be talked to by candidates such as Stepan Demirchyan (top). And some, such as President Robert Kocharyan (bottom), will be talked back to.



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