A number of human rights activists in Armenia have claimed that with the new draft Criminal Code an attempt is being made to criminalize sharp criticism of the government.
The draft, in particular, stipulates that publicly justifying or promoting terrorism is punishable by up to three years in prison.
According to Artur Sakunts, who heads the Vanadzor-based office of the Armenian Citizens’ Assembly, authorities may carry out political persecutions against their opponents under the pretext of this article that needs expounding. He cited the example of the 2016 standoff between security forces and pro-opposition gunmen known as Sasna Tsrer who were making political demands and drew the support of a considerable number of opposition activists as well as politically neutral citizens who did not want the group consisting mostly of 1992-1994 Karabakh war veterans to be killed during the anticipated police storm.
“When Sasna Tsrer group members where barricaded inside the police compound that they had seized peaceful protests were taking place outside with the aim to prevent bloodshed… And now this may be qualified as support,” Sakunts said.
The activist further claimed that the article of the Criminal Code could as well be applied against those who express antigovernment views during a public debate. He emphasized that he was against hate speech, but was also against silencing anti-government views. “Even the most extreme and offensive speech against an official cannot serve as a ground for prosecution because it is protected under conventions – it is public opinion,” Sakunts explained.
Head of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia Avetik Ishkhanian also believes that in conditions of Armenia the kind of article may be applied arbitrarily. “Suppose someone calls Soghomon Tehlirian (a man who assassinated Talaat Pasha, the former Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, in an act of revenge for the genocide), one of the greatest Armenians. Is he supposed to be prosecuted? Of course, this is very hypothetical, but clearly this article can be applied very arbitrarily,” he said.
Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who authored the bill, dismissed the criticism. “There is no criminal offense in this draft that has been included with anyone particular in mind,” he said. “We study the experience of other countries on every step that can be seen as controversial, we discuss things with international experts to see the experience of courts in other countries, their interpretations.”
The minister said that they are ready to listen to all proposals of the civil society and human rights activists on the planned provision on terrorism, which he described as a subtle issue.