Gabriel Balayan, deputy Minister of Defense of Armenia, has come under fire for his assault on human rights defenders during a Q/A session at the Parliament on February 28, 2020. Human rights defenders have criticized him for threatening to report on them to law enforcement bodies and his language inciting public distrust towards them, while Human Rights House Yerevan issued a statement condemning his threatening behavior and demanding disciplinary action.
“Law enforcement bodies will soon handle the issue of certain human rights defenders. I consider them “human rights defenders” in converted commas. I have certain information that these defenders carry our damaging activities. I have a feeling that some of them rejoice at every tragic event. They go and try to impel the relatives [of murdered army servicemen] to certain actions. If they are pushed out from the door, they return through the window and vice versa. I believe law enforcement bodies will start dealing with these cases. Because [these human rights defenders] are retraumatizing people who have a grief, they are inventing stories, spreading false information. These include “human rights defenders” in converted commas who hold attorney licenses.” He continued calling on journalists to ask them “why are they rejoicing when an incident of death is reported from the army?” He did not mention names, insisting that “everyone knows well who is meant.”
To the question of journalists whether this was his own opinion or the position of the Ministry, Balayan clarified that it was “a result of analysis of information.” “During these past incidents [of soldier deaths allegedly due to suicide] they went to their homes, phoned the parents even being abroad, I don’t know how they find phone numbers, then they promise them to go and help, they speak of finding financial means for them. The official bodies in charge of investigating these things, will find out who is financing them, what they are financed for. I assume they receive money for dealing with each case, that’s why they’re rejoicing from each incident,” continued Balayan.
Epress.am contacted Nina Karapetyants of the Helsinki Association for Human Rights for a comment. According to Karapetyants, “it is natural that when officials do not seek and punish those in charge of crimes committed in the army, they look for others to blame and human rights defenders are an easy target. No moral human being would rejoice over incidents of death. In fact, refusal to properly investigate and punish perpetrators of these crimes is a good business, a way to earn money, therefore a reason for for certain institutions to rejoice, otherwise there is no explanation why perpetrators of crimes are not punished.” Nina Karapetyants believes that the government is full of so-called “antirevolutionaries” who continue holding positions and working against the logic of the revolution and only wish to shut up human rights defenders.
Protests against High Ranking Military and Military Investigative Bodies
The Ministry of Defense and the Investigative Committee of Armenia have come under fire from civil society over repeated non-combat casualties in the army. Much of the heightened criticism against the situation in the army and impunity for the recurring deaths in non-combat is related to the fact that already in the two months of 2020, the army has suffered 13 losses, including deaths characterized as suicide, deaths due to accidents and soldier illnesses. Mothers in Black (mothers demanding justice for their sons for years), joined by human rights defenders, including Nina Karapetyants of the Helsinki Association for Human Rights and Zhanna Aleksanyan of Reporters for Human Rights, have intensified their protests, contending that the system has not changed and young men continue dying in the army as a result of impunity of commanders and higher ranking military, while the investigative and law enforcement bodies cover up cases of murder by characterizing them as suicides.
On February 17, at a public assembly for mobilizing efforts to demand changes in the defense system, a new civil initiative was set up called “In the Back of the Soldier.” The Facebook page of the initiative informs that every single Thursday, protests will be held during the Government’s Cabinet meetings until their demand of meeting with Prime Minister Pashinyan is fulfilled.
On February 20, at their protest during the cabinet meeting, Mothers in Black called on all the parents not to let their sons be taken to the army, before army crimes start to be revealed and those in charge be punished. They remained unsatisfied by the promises given by the administration of Prime Minister’s office that the issues raised by them were discussed at a high level meeting and changes affecting tenure of positions by a number of high ranking officials were anticipated.
Indeed, days before deputy Minister Balayan’s assaults on human rights defenders and in response to high criticism, Prime Minister Pashinyan fired senior military officials; General Artur Baghdasaryan, head of the Military Police and General Aleksan Aleksanyan, head of the Armed Forces Department for Psychological Support. Parents of killed soldiers and human rights defenders are not satisfied with these measures, as those in charge of covering up crimes in the army still hold positions, including those at investigative bodies. Criminal relationships dominating the army environment, is another of their claims.
Human Rights House Yerevan’s Statement
Human Rights House Yerevan, association of human rights organizations based in Armenia, and member of the international Human Rights House Foundation, characterized Balayan’s statements as a threat towards human rights defenders. The House believes that public oversight over the armed forces is particularly important, that conditions enabling human rights work need to be created and public support needs to be provided to such work. Given the role and importance of human right defenders in overall human rights protection, establishment of rule of law and democratic order, as well as Armenia’s international commitments to protect and support human rights defenders, the Human Rights house strongly condemns acts of attacking, discrediting and threatening human rights defenders. It calls on government bodies and officials to refrain from such statements and acts, as well as threats to bring human rights defenders to criminal responsibility.
The House has also called on Defense Minister Tonoyan to evaluate Deputy Minister Balayan’s behavior and subject him disciplinary action if necessary, and to take measures to strengthen public oversight in the army by actively engaging human rights defenders.