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Armenian Human Rights Defenders Work in Inadequate Conditions, HRH Report Says

The examination of human rights violation and pressure cases recorded between January-July 2017 give sufficient grounds to conclude that the conditions for human rights defenders and their activities are inadequate for a full-fledged protection of the rights and interests of citizens and social groups in Armenia, the Human Rights House Yerevan said in its Midterm Summary Report issued on August 3. “Rights and public interests activists have obviously faced not only Armenia’s faulty judicial system but also the obstructions created by a number of actors and institutions including state administration structures (even Yerevan City Hall among them), government- backed institutions, the conservative dominant culture encouraged by the state, as well as anti-rights activists and NGOs with business and partisan orientations proliferating in the recent years,” the report says.

Main Cases

Obstructions and violations by the judicial system

During the 2017 year cases of pressures on lawyers in Armenian courts were recorded, particularly within proceedings of the politically resonant high-profile cases (of Sasna Tsrer group; of Sefilian and others). On June 13, according to court officers of Shengavit Community Court of First Instance, they attempted to examine Zhirair Sefilian’s, Nerses Poghosyan’s and several others’ lawyers belongings. Lawyers Tigran Hayrapetyan, Nina Karapetyants and Arayik Papikyan argued that the officers had in fact intended to unlawfully search them, which they had declined. Remarkably, the lawyers believe that court officers display partiality in “examining” only the lawyers but not the judge or the prosecutors. A similar attitude was received by some of the lawyers involved in the defense of 18 out of the 32 culprits under the Sasna Tsrer’s case hearing on July 3. The court police officers arbitrarily let in some of the lawyers without searching their bags, while attempted to inspect some others, including Moushegh Shushanyan, Monika Margaryan and Inessa Poghosyan. As per the aforementioned lawyers, the court uses these searches and unwarranted sanctions to obstruct their professional activities.

HRH Yerevan regards the court’s such initiatives as a manifest violation of the principle of equality of parties and an attempt to exercise pressure upon the involved lawyers.

Impediments and violations by state administration bodies and state-backed structures

In July 2017, the organizers of Golden Apricot International Film Festival removed the previously scheduled the out-of-competition rubric “Armenians: Internal and External Views” from the festival program as a compromise to the condition that their partners – the homophobically-disposed Union of Cinematographers of Armenia – had put forth for providing them a space for film screenings. Precisely, the Union demanded that the festival withdrew from the program two LGBT-themed films, “Listen to Me: Untold Stories beyond Hatred” documentary and “Apricot Groves” fiction, both telling about problems of LGBT people. By their compromising solution to remove the entire section the films were part of, the Golden Apricot IFF caused substantial harm to the advocacy activities of Public Information and Need of Knowledge (Pink Armenia) NGO whose bespoke production the “Listen to Me” documentary was. Through the language of cinema, Pink Armenia was seeking to speak to the Armenian society about problems of LGBT people and to achieve their public visibility and rights protection. The inability of the festival organizers to rearrange the screening of the declined films in alternative spaces is illustrative of the inconsistency of organizations closely partnering with state structures in Armenia to hold up to their own declared values and policies – in this case the nondiscrimination and representation of the abundant experience of different groups. The festival is supported by RA Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, as well as by the Armenian Apostolic church noticeable for its increasingly greater interference with the state matters in the recent years. While the first two institutions provided no reaction to the incident despite the call of rights activists to do so, the Church came up with an explicit homophobic position, confirming that they had indeed urged Golden Apricot to renounce the screening of the LGBT-themed films.

HRH Yerevan urges Golden Apricot to demonstrate perseverance and ensure the declared principles of humanism and equality befitting an international festival, as well as urges the Cinematographer’s Union to reconsider their homophobic position. HRH Yerevan also calls upon RA Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture to openly condemn the incident and to assist the NGOs working towards protection of LGBT people’s rights in line with the Armenian constitution and the international law, thereby precluding discrimination and any constraints to the right of freedom of expression and cultural diversity in the cultural domain, as well as preventing the furthering of homophobia in Armenia. Finally, it is HRH Yerevan’s call upon the Armenian Apostolic Church to revise their policy of fostering the hate propaganda towards certain groups of society, to confront with the truly Christian value of humanism, and to go for reforms in favor and defense of vulnerable groups.

Threatening and targeting patronized by impunity; cases of hate speech

On June 2, 2017 in a comment under his facebook post where he was criticizing the Armenian government for March 1 killings, numerous illegalities, injustices and pressures on citizens rising against the system, head of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor Office Artur Sakunts received a death threat from a user named Ashot Avanesyan, followed by second threat from another facebook user. On June 5, the human rights defender filed a report to General Prosecutor’s office, which is currently being examined for sufficient grounds to instigate a criminal investigation. Concurrently (on 8 of June) Sakunts was invited to the police department. According to the police, they had examined the statements Sakunts had made in the media and had forwarded them to the respective unit with the purpose to identify whether sufficient grounds for initiating a criminal case are at place. It is uncertain as of now how effective the steps undertaken by the law enforcement bodies on the part of the reported death threats have been.

It is HRH Yerevan’s demand from the law enforcement bodies that a prompt and proper investigation is conducted to identify the persons death-threatening Sakunts and to take pertinent measures to preclude any future targeting or threatening of the human rights defender.

Obstacles and offenses on behalf of and through NGOs

The pressures upon environmental activists that began back in 2016 persisted through 2017. The purpose was to create impediments to their activities at policy and decision-making levels in protecting public interests. In particular, as reported by a known environmental activist Artur Grigoryan, Zangezour Copper- Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC) mining company and the Governor’s Office of Syunik province obstruct his and his other environmentalist colleagues’ works in the frames of the Multi-Stakeholder Group (MSG) (where they represent the interests of civil society) that coordinates the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – the organization assigning international standards to mining. As Grigoryan holds, the evidence he has at hand are sufficient to prove the personal and business ties of ZCMC and Syunik’s Governor Vahe Hakobyan with Civil Voice NGO and Public Diplomacy (same as Paradiplomacy) charitable, which, as Grigoryan holds, jeopardize the environmental activists’ work within MSG.

The mentioned BONGOs attempt to withdraw from the working group of MSG actors known for their long-standing environmental efforts by attributing them bargain relations with ZCMC. In reality, as Grigoryan maintains, Paradiplomacy NGO is itself ruled by regional governor Vahe Hakobyan’s wife, Elsa Petrosyan. In turn, Vahe Hakobyan had been the administrative director of ZCMC prior to taking up the governor’s position and had then chaired the Board of Trustees of the charitable foundation affiliated to the same company as per his last end- of-year public report in 2016.According to the environmentalist, pressure is being exerted upon civil society sector by direct involvement of administrative resources of a state structure, namely the governor’s office and by means of ZCMC’s financial resources (of which the German-based “Cronimet” holds the 60% of shares). Public allegations against Artur Grigoryan and Inga Zarafyan (both MSG members) were disseminated also last year when an animation clip was circulated in a closed Facebook group. The police declined to initiate a proceeding and identify the authors of the animation on the grounds of lack of mechanisms.

HRH Yerevan believes that it is the duty of law enforcement bodies to investigate into the alleged links between the hindrances to MDC’s works, the preparation of the animation and the activities of the business-oriented NGOs tied to Governor’s Office of Syunik Province.

Read the full report here.