Concern over proposed amendments to law on religious freedom
On 1st June 2017, public debates began on a new bill that would amend the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. The new initiative comes from the Ministry of Justice, and civil society claims that the proposed amendments would contravene international principles protecting freedom of association. The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly - Vanadzor in Armenia stated that the draft bill includes many controversial provisions that could be used to discriminate against different religious denominations and asked for such potentially discriminatory regulations to be removed from the text. The Assembly also stated that the Armenian Apostolic Church should not be treated differently and be given more privileges compared to other religious groups in Armenia. In addition, Armenian civil society has emphasised the need for all religious organisations in the country to be declared legal entities, thus ensuring fair and equal access to judicial protection.
A year after violent protests erupted in Yerevan, Armenian police continue to harass and intimidate groups and individuals on trial for inciting and participating in the July 2016 mass demonstrations.
The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor reported that during the trial of members of the armed group Sasna Tsrer on 28th June 2017 at the Court of General Jurisdiction of Avan and Nor Nork Administrative Districts, police prevented the defendants from passing papers to their lawyers, and one defendant was forcefully removed from the courtroom. Moreover, lawyers Arayik Papikyan and Mushegh Shushanyan informed the media that five members of the armed group, Arayik Khandoyan, Areg Kyureghyan, Mkhitar Avetisyan, Smbat Barseghyan and Gagik Yeghiazaryan, were beaten by police in the basement of the court. Another man was beaten by police officers in a room of the court building.
The armed group Sasna Tsrer was responsible for taking over a police station in Yerevan on 17th July 2016, holding several police officers hostage, and inciting Armenians to take to the streets in large-scale, anti-government protests that went on for several weeks. The armed group finally gave up the hostages and control of the police station on 31st July 2016.
On 12th June 2017, the online publication Bellingcat issued a report on the violence committed against journalists during Armenia’s 2017 elections. During parliamentarian elections in April 2017, for example, journalists in several cities were attacked by persons close to the ruling party. In this new report, Narine Khachatryan notes the state's failure to ensure free and fair elections for citizens and safety for journalists reporting on them. Khachatryan found that at least 10 journalists from local media outlets were prevented from doing their work and faced physical violence while covering the 2nd April elections. As previously reported on the Monitor, Radio Free Europe correspondent Sisak Gabrielyan was attacked by activists from the ruling Republican Party during the April election. Another case cited in the report refers to Araratnews.am journalist Shoghik Galstyan and her cameraman Hayk Petrosyan, who were also physically attacked while trying to film a case of potential electoral fraud at a polling station.
Khachatryan also addresses safety issues for Armenian journalists, citing cases of the media covering the 2016 protests. In July 2016, for example, 30 Armenian journalists were attacked during the protests. During the municipal electoral campaign in September and October 2016, 10 cases of physical violence were recorded against 26 journalists and camera operators; 52 cases of other types of pressure against mass media representatives; and 33 violations of journalists’ right to receive and disseminate information.
In a separate incident, several Armenian human rights activists accused the organisers of the Armenian Golden Apricot International Film Festival of censorship for scrapping part of the event that featured two films with LGBTI themes. According to Radio Free Europe, the two films, Listen To Me: Untold Stories Beyond Hatred and Apricot Groves, were scheduled to be viewed outside of the competition. Human rights activists sent the organisers a letter signed by 100 filmmakers and activists, calling for the screening of all films in the festival, regardless of the topic.