A young civic activist who triggered a scandal about alleged sexual and other abuse at a Yerevan boarding school said Wednesday that she has turned down a police offer to ask for a pardon and thus avoid trial on controversial libel charges.
Mariam Sukhudian, a leader of the environment protection group SOS Teghut, was among about a dozen young people who worked in April-June 2008 as volunteers at Boarding School No. 11 for children with special needs located in the Nubarashen suburb. In their subsequent public statements, they accused the school administration of failing to ensure the minimal standards of teaching and hygiene and routinely ill-treating and students.
They also cited some schoolgirls as alleging sexual harassment by one of their teachers. Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls, subsequently identified a Diana Amirkhanian, and alerted Armenian media about her claims. The school administration strongly denied the allegations.
An ensuing police investigation cleared the school administration and the teacher in question, Levon Avagian, of any wrongdoing, saying that Amirkhanian withdrew her allegations. The police then accused Sukhudian of persuading the girl, who graduated from the school in June 2008, to falsely incriminate her teacher for “personal gain.” The activist was formally charged in August 2009 with “false denunciation,” a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
The police informed Sukhudian and her lawyer, Nona Galstian, on Wednesday that the charge has been replaced by a less grave accusation of “slander” that carries heavy fines and prison sentence of up to three years.
According to Sukhudian, a police investigator also said that the case against her will be dropped altogether if she agrees to qualify for a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities earlier this year. “I told him that I don’t consider myself guilty and demand the prosecution of the real criminals,” she said, speaking to journalists outside the police headquarters of the Nubarashen and Erebuni districts. She said she is not afraid of facing trial and the possibility of imprisonment.
“The new accusation is as baseless as the previous,” Galstian said, for her part. “We believe that the police are still not doing anything to solve the crimes committed in the school and punish the real culprits.”
The lawyer added that the police have refused her demands for a joint face-to-face interrogation of her client and Amirkhanian on the grounds that the latter is not in Armenia at the moment. She and Sukhudian claim that the young woman was bullied into withdrawing her allegations against the teacher.
The case against Sukhudian has been condemned by Armenia’s leading human rights organizations. They say Armenian boarding schools, which are primarily supposed to educate for orphans and disabled children, have long been notorious for their lack of transparency, poor sanitary conditions and ill-treatment of students.