By Ruzanna Stepanian
An Armenian appeals court on Wednesday refused to reinstate a young university professor who was fired earlier this year for criticizing the government during his lectures.
Sasun Saribekian, who taught political and economic geography at Yerevan State University (YSU), was dismissed last March following a written complaint singed by some of his students.
In their joint letter to the YSU rector Aram Simonian, the 30 signatories said Saribekian used his classes to “discredit” the government and the university management and to instill in them “pessimism about the country’s future.” They also claimed that the 33-year-old lecturer tricked them into attending a meeting with a radical opposition leader.
Saribekian has strongly denied the claims, saying that the students were forced to sign the letter by Simonian, who he claims fired him at the behest of the Armenian authorities and the National Security Service (NSS) in particular. “They want to show that those who will try to tell the truth about the situation in the country, the processes going on in the university will be punished,” he told RFE/RL on Wednesday.
Saribekian claimed that he only he made an “objective assessment of the political and economic situation in the country” and never forced any of his students to listen to Aram Karapetian, the leader of the opposition Nor Zhamanakner party.
However, Simonian, who is a senior member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), insisted that Saribekian lost his job because of committing a serious violation of YSU rules, and not for political reasons. “We not persecuting anyone for their political activities,” the YSU rector told RFE/RL. “We don’t have the right to do that.”
Simonian went on to accuse his former employee of urging students to emigrate from the country. “I remember one young man saying that he did not want to live here after Saribekian’s lectures,” he said.
An extensive report on the affair that appeared in the ArmeniaNow.com online publication last week said that some of the letter’s signatories admitted that they never attended Saribekian’s lecturers. It also quoted several other students as saying that they disagreed with the allegations contained in the letter but chose to sign it out of “solidarity” with their class.
The report also quoted two senior YSU professors saying that the NSS may have indeed been instrumental in Saribekian’s ouster. The Armenian successor to the KGB is widely believed to continue the Soviet-era practice of assigning so-called “curators” to YSU and other state universities. Human rights groups say their function is to monitor and suppress anti-government activity among students and their professors critical of the regime.
Saribekian sued the YSU management later in the spring, demanding that his dismissal be deemed null and void. However, a Yerevan court of first instance rejected the demand last month.
The higher Court of Appeals effectively declared the dismissal unsubstantiated, brushing aside YSU claims that Saribekian violated students’ “constitutional right to education.” But citing a clause in Armenia’s Labor Code, the court ruled at the same time that he can not be reinstated because of his “strained relationship” with the YSU management.