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Large-scale demonstrations and human rights violations show Armenia’s political crisis is deepening

Gross violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly are now being registered in Armenia during anti-government demonstrations. Journalists are also being subjected to violence as the country continues to face political upheaval.

May 17, 2022 - Anna Vardanyan - Articles and Commentary

Anti-government protests in Yerevan, May 4th 2022. Photo: Cornelius_brandt / Shutterstock

Following the 44-day war in Karabakh in 2020, the political crisis in Armenia has still not yet been overcome. This issue intensified over the last two weeks, when the opposition shifted its struggle from the parliament to the streets. Protesters are now demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan due to possible concessions to Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The current Armenian authorities now hope to conclude a peace agreement with a hostile neighbouring country supported by international mediation from Russia. The opposition accuses Pashinyan of wishing to cede all of the disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku. In March, Pashinyan stated in parliament that the international community was calling on Armenia to “weaken its demands on Nagorno-Karabakh”. The opposition accused him of “betrayal”, declaring that “the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan” is “inadmissible”. As a sign of protest, the demonstrators engaged in large-scale civil disobedience, blocking a number of streets in the capital and setting up tents. During rallies, many carry signs and some even say “Armenia without Turks”. According to the German news agency DPA, more than 20,000 people took part in a regular demonstration on May 2nd. There have been at least 250 arrests in Armenia as a result of protests against the prime minister, including members of parliament.

According to reports from various local and international organisations, the police are using brute force not only against peaceful demonstrators, but also journalists. According to a statement issued by the Union of Journalists of Armenia, law enforcement bodies have used disproportionate force to hinder the activities of many journalists and cameramen covering the events, grossly violating their rights. A report published by the Helsinki Committee of Armenia human rights NGO revealed gross violations of the right to freedom of assembly. In particular, the document highlighted the disproportionate force used against protesters by the Special Battalion of the Police Patrol Service Regiment. There is credible testimony that citizens were physically injured as a result of police actions, with journalists and cameramen obstructed from covering the rallies.

In conversation with us, the chairwoman of the Standing Committee on Human Rights Protection and Public Affairs of the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, Taguhi Tovmasyan, noted that those engaged in journalism in today’s democratic Armenia are often subjected to violence and their professional activities hindered. Those who commit these crimes often go unpunished. She also said that the head of the EU delegation to Armenia, Ambassador Andrea Victorin, responded to her urgent letters to international organisations by emphasising the need for proper law enforcement. The ambassador reminded Armenia that adherence to the rule of law applies to every member of society including the police, and that the media should be able to perform its professional duties and work free from intimidation. An opposition MP from the “I Have Honor” Alliance, Tovmasyan is actively participating in the ongoing rallies. She told us about the situation on the ground and the suffering of citizens. Tovmasyan believes that this situation represents a broad step backwards in Armenia’s democracy. She criticised the presence of the head of the State Protection Service, Sargis Hovhannisyan, at the rallies. Hovhannisyan has stood out for using brutal force against a journalist and a cameraman, which, according to Tovmasyan, is a criminal act in line with the country’s criminal and mass media law codes.

Strict restrictions on freedom of speech and media

According to the protocols of various international human rights organisations, the reversal of democratic norms in Armenia, in particular the restrictions on freedom of speech, has been made clear by a new law concerning the criminalisation of “grave insult” to officials. This was circulated by the government in 2021 and led to the initiation of more than 260 criminal cases in 2022 alone. In this regard, the human rights organisation Freedom House expressed its concern and called on the Armenian authorities to revoke the new law.

Pashinyan and his faction’s initiative to criminalise insults was recently criticised by the US State Department in its annual 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report on Armenia stated that individuals should be free to criticise the government without fear of reprisals. In its report, the US State Department noted that the country’s parliament has significantly restricted accredited journalists’ ability to cover developments in parliament during the year.

According to Taguhi Tovmasyan, the law criminalising insult grossly violates both the principles of the Armenian constitution and the country’s commitments within the framework of the OSCE and European Convention on Human Rights. She stated that “I have repeatedly warned that the adoption of this law is problematic and could lead to serious consequences, as it seriously contradicts both the constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It will endanger democracy in Armenia. Unfortunately, the parliamentary majority did not listen to warnings at the time, as it is obvious that the criminalisation of insult does not pursue a constitutional goal, but is directed against free speech. It simply aims to prevent public criticism of government officials by threatening to use criminal coercion. As a result, the criminalisation of insult is unconstitutional. If these cases have a final outcome and are also heard in the European Court of Human Rights, the defeat of the state will be inevitable. This in turn will lead to the provision of compensation from state funds, generated at the expense of taxpayers.”

Serious issues related to judicial independence

In parallel with the political crisis in post-war Armenia, there are also noticeable and growing problems in the judicial system. According to various professional assessments, these issues have a clear political dimension. In particular, the government has repeatedly encroached on the judiciary’s authority. This includes cases of disciplinary proceedings and criminal prosecution against unwanted judges.

Tovmasyan believes that what is happening in the country has never been encountered before in judicial practice. She stated, “It is not enshrined in any international law, any article of the European Convention on Human Rights, or the civil law concept of the right to a fair trial. These do not allow judges to be prosecuted for their rulings. Moreover, Article Three of the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia stipulates: “The respect for and protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people are the duty of the public authorities. The inalienable dignity of a human being constitutes the integral basis of his or her rights and freedoms.” This case is a brazen encroachment on the independent functioning of the courts. It is, first and foremost, a matter of deep concern and disappointment geared towards the violation of fundamental human rights and democracy. Such steps have nothing to do with the establishment of democratic institutions. On the contrary, they indicate political problems and a deep crisis in the country.”

The aforementioned report by the US State Department states that in 2021 the judiciary of Armenia “did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. Popular trust in the impartiality of judges remained low, and corruption of judges remained a concern.” It remains to be seen how the country will deal with such problems, especially in the difficult circumstances it finds itself in now.

Anna Vardanyan is an independent journalist, political analyst based in Armenia.

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