The police continued, however, to press the controversial criminal case against Mariam Sukhudian, a leader of the environment protection group SOS Teghut accused of “false denunciation.” The charge carries up to five years in prison.
Sukhudian was again summoned to the police department of Yerevan’s Erebuni and Nubarashen districts and interrogated in the presence of her defense lawyer. She spent two and a half hours there despite refusing to testify to police investigators. “I wrote a statement saying that I will familiarize myself with the entire case before giving any testimony,” she told journalists afterwards.
Sukhudian 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 Nubarashen. 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 underfeeding 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.
An ensuing police investigation cleared the school administration and the teacher in question, Levon Avagian, of any wrongdoing, saying that Amirkhanian withdrew her allegations. A police statement earlier this month said that Sukhudian deliberately got the girl, who graduated from the school in June 2008, to “slander” her teacher for “personal gain.”
Sukhudian strongly denied that, saying that Amirkhanian was bullied by the police. The activist, known for her vocal advocacy of environmental issues, was formally charged on Saturday.
As the Erebuni police again questioned her on Wednesday, several dozen members of various Armenian non-governmental organizations picketed the police building to condemn the case attracting a growing public resonance. They held up placards demanding that the police prosecute Nubarashen school personnel instead. Police officers at the scene accused the protesters of obstructing their work but avoided using force against them.
Avetik Ishkhanian, the chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, described the accusation leveled against Sukhudian as “absurd.” “Knowing Mariam as an ecological activist, I am convinced that she would not have said such things out of the blue,” he said. “We must not allow her prosecution. I just find no words to characterize this affair.”
Ishkhanian added that Armenian boarding schools, which are primarily meant to educate for orphans and disabled children, have long been notorious for their lack of transparency, poor sanitary conditions and ill-treatment of students. Sukhudian’s prosecution would only discourage school administrations from addressing those problems, he warned.
Another protester, Sona Ayvazian of the Armenian branch of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, claimed that the case highlights a broader suppression of dissent by the authorities in Yerevan. “It looks like active citizens are not encouraged in our country,” she said. “The authorities seem to be trying to eliminate such citizens one by one. Mariam is simply the latest victim, and we don’t know who will be the next.”
Nine other local NGOs involved in human rights advocacy likewise attributed the case to what they called a systematic “policy of intimidation and repression” targeting government critics. “We demand an immediate end to the criminal case against Mariam Sukhudian and call on law-enforcement bodies to punish those responsible for it,” they said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, the Nubarashen school principle, Meruzhan Yengibarian, again refused to comment on the case when contacted by RFE/RL. Nor did he want to explain why Avagian, the teacher implicated in the sex scandal, quit his job earlier this year.