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End harassment against human rights defenders and protect their legitimate human rights work

June 18, 2021

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We, the undersigned civil society organisations are concerned about the ongoing harassment against Armenian human rights defenders. We call on the Armenian authorities to respect their international commitment towards creating an enabling environment for human rights defenders, to protect their legitimate work, condemn threats and attacks against them and cease unlawful interference in their activities, including through groundless criminal prosecution and respective operative-investigative measures.

 

For the last two years human rights defenders (HRDs) and human rights organisations (HROs) in Armenia have been subjected to raised levels of hate speech and disinformation, to physical attacks and online threats. The situation has further aggravated  after the agreement on ceasefire, reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the 2nd Karabakh war on 9 November 2020. The Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio LibertyHelsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor and the Open Society Foundation Armenia were attacked immediately after the agreement was announced. Though an investigation was launched, no one has been held accountable for these attacks so far. The inability of the Armenian government to protect HRDs and voice support for them has created an atmosphere of impunity, enabling the right-wing nationalistic groups and movements to make HRDs and HROs their primary target. The impunity of these groups has influenced the election campaign negatively and is yet another indication that it should be duly addressed.

 

Given the worsening situation of HRDs in Armenia, Human Rights House Yerevan, along with Human Rights House Foundation, has made joint submissions within the framework of international and regional mechanisms. Specifically, in the scope of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (a session held on 23 January 2020) the Armenian government, inter alia, has agreed to the following recommendations։

 

  • To end the culture of impunity for attacks against human rights defenders by carrying out prompt, impartial and effective investigations and prosecutions of threats and violence against them;

  • To support human rights defenders with official condemnation of attacks when they occur;

  • To adopt specific laws that will prohibit hate speech and take concrete steps to end smear campaigns and threats against human rights defenders;

  • To take measures to protect human rights defenders and civil society from harassment.

 

The Armenian government has not taken any tangible steps towards the improvement of the situation of HRDs in Armenia, who find themselves in more and more precarious conditions.

 

A relatively recent trend of targeting HRDs by these right-wing campaigns is particularly disturbing: false statements about “crimes” allegedly committed by HRDs are being filed to various law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal cases against HRDs on various charges. Such false statements have a considerable chilling effect on HRDs and their legitimate work. Last year, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights raised concern about SLAPPS – strategic lawsuits against public participation, filed against human rights defenders. These are vexatious criminal or civil claims against HRDs to divert their energy and attention from their legitimate work towards fighting the false claims. The latest trend of false accusations in Armenia could have a similar impact on HRDs.

 

One such complaint, for example, has been filed against HRD Lara Aharonian, a co-founder of the Armenian Women’s Resource Center and the Board member of Human Rights House Yerevan, falsely accusing her of involving transgender people in Armenia into prostitution, on one occasion, or disseminating pornographic materials, on another.

 

In the latest development, a criminal case has been initiated against Yezidi HRD Sashik Sultanyan based upon a bogus statement, filed by the leader of the infamous right-wing group “VETO”. On 20 May 2021 the apartment of Sashik Sultanyan was searched by investigators and operatives of the National Security Service of the Republic of Armenia. Sashik Sultanyan, according to his own testimonies, has been deprived of the right to make a phone call and of the right to an attorney. On the very same day the premises of the Yezidi Center of Human Rights NGO, as well as the households and cars of his two colleagues, one of them being Muraz Shamoyan – the news editor of the Center, were searched too. On the next day, May 21st, Muraz Shamoyan was subjected to an eight-hour long questioning. During the questioning the investigating officer told him that “western NGOs have to be shut down.”

 

The criminal case, which Sashik Sultanyan and his colleagues are involved in, has been initiated on the grounds of Article 226 of the Armenian Criminal Code: inciting national, racial or religious hatred that has been committed publicly or by mass media (Section 2 (1)). It is Sashik Sultanyan‘s opinion and facts-based evaluative judgements on violations of human rights of ethnic Yezidis in Armenia that are qualified as “incitement to national, racial and religious hatred”. Initiating a criminal case on this ground risks silencing the freedom of expression of minority rights defenders and undermining the vital work they are carrying out for the benefit of minorities in Armenia.

 

On 26 May 2021, 23 local NGOs, Human Rights House Yerevan included, signed a statement, condemning the unlawful prosecution against Sashik Sultanyan and others, requesting its termination. International human rights organisations have also been vocal in raising their concerns.

 

We, the undersigned organisations, hereby urge the Armenian government, the Prosecutor’s Office and the law enforcement agencies to take measures towards fulfillment of responsibilities undertaken by the Armenian government vis a vis protection of HRDs and promotion of their rights, namely:

 

  • To end the culture of impunity for attacks against human rights defenders by carrying out prompt, impartial and effective investigations and prosecutions of threats and violence against them;

  • To support human rights defenders by publicly condemning attacks when they occur;

  • To take measures to protect human rights defenders and civil society from harassment, including by ending the practice of interfering with their work based on false claims against them;

  • To immediately drop charges against HRD Sashik Sultanyan and terminate unsubstantiated prosecution of him and his colleagues from the Yezidi Rights Center.

 

Human Rights House Yerevan members:

“Pink” Human Rights Defender NGO

“Women’s Resource Centre, Armenia” NGO

“Socioscope” Societal Research and Consultancy Center” NGO

“Real World, Real People” Social NGO

“PEN” Cultural Center” NGO

Human Right House Foundation

Norwegian Helsinki Committee

 

hrhyerevan.org

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