Worrying use of judicial system to prosecute activists in Armenia
According to the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a court judgment in January extended the pretrial detention of Andreas Ghukasyan, pending trial on criminal charges of “organising mass disorder”. Ghukasyan, a senior member of the opposition New Armenia movement '(Nor Hayastan)', was originally detained in July, 2016 for his role in organising anti-governmenet protests that turned violent. Despite publicly available video footage showing Ghukasyan calling on protesters to remain calm and not confront police, his persecution continues. Many claim that the clampdown against activists involved in the New Armenia movement has intensified in recent months. The recent sentencing of prominent New Armenia activist Gevorg Safaryan to two-years imprisonment for participating in an opposition assembly in December 2015, has prompted many to question the integrity of the judicial process. He was convicted of allegedly using violence against a police officer. In a recent statement, FIDH and its member organisation in Armenia Civil Society Institute noted:
'...the principles of fair trial have been violated during Safaryan’s pre-trial and trial proceedings. According to Mr. Safaryan’s attorney, at least seven defence witnesses were forbidden from being heard by judge Mnatsakan Martirosyan without any legal ground or explanation. Accusation witnesses gave contradictory testimonies. These contradictions were not duly noted or assessed by the court which used the latter testimonies as a ground for accusation.'
Safaryan has already spent more than a year in pretrial detention. The worryingly frequent use of pretrial detention has been viewed as completely unnecessary and disproportionate to the alleged crimes. Moreover, many fear that Armenian authorities are purposefully using pretrial detention as part of a campaign to criminalise legitimate dissent.
To mark International Day of Human Rights, on 9th December the Armenian Media Center hosted a debate about the human rights situation in Armenia. Several civil society leaders drew attention to the worsening situation for human rights in Armenia over the course of 2016, with particular reference to the use of excessive force during protests by security forces. The video below documents the discussion.
The ongoing harassment of Marina Poghosyan, a human rights defender and director of Armenian CSO Veles, has drawn attention to the increasingly dangerous environment for investigative human rights defenders in Armenia. Well known for her work exposing corruption, Ms. Poghosyan stood trial on the 18th of January after being accused of extortion. The Armenian authorities' repeated harassment of Ms. Poghosyan is indicative of a situation where the judiciary is used to silence activists who expose corruption or dare to question the government. Many Armenian CSOs believe that the charges are fabricated and have issued an urgent call to international human rights mechanisms to monitor the authorities' ongoing harassment of Ms. Poghosyan. The trial has been transferred to the Central Court in Yerevan. No date has been set for the next hearing.
The use of intimidatory tactics by Armenian authorities, comes at a time when The Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression (CPFE) has published their latest report on freedom of expression in Armenia. The CSO noted that in 2016, numerous violations, cases of pressure and impediments against journalists were evidenced. As with many other countries in the region, the work of journalists is still dangerous and Armenian media representatives often work in challenging conditions. The report noted:
'In total, the CPFE has registered 10 cases of physical violence during which 26 journalists and cameramen suffered, 52 cases of other types of pressure against the mass media and their staff members, as well as 33 cases of violating the right to receive and disseminate information.'
In particular, the report drew attention to the worsening conditions for journalism during protests in July of 2016.
On 17th January, the Armenian Media Center hosted a discussion on discrimination against the LGBTI community in Armenia. The discussion was framed by the release of a new report by, 'New Generation', an Armenian CSO focussing on human rights. The report, called 'Discrimination demonstrations against LGBT persons - hate speech, gender stereotypes and forms of violation of human rights in Armenia'. According to the authors of the study, during last year different forms of violence against LGBT community members were monitored: physical, sexual, intolerance and hatred speeches, psychological pressure and unfair treatment.
During a press conference held in December 2016, the Armenian Minister of Justice, Arpine Hovhannisyan, defended the new laws on non-governmental organisations. As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the amendments to the legal environment for CSOs were broadly welcomed by Armenian civil society. Ms. Hovhannisyan went on to reiterate that the laws were not designed to suppress civil society, but aimed to regulate CSOs who receive funding from the government.