Armenia’s Justice Ministry and national bar association have drafted a bill that would make it a crime to insult lawyers or threaten them and their family members with violence.
The move results from angry public reactions to high-profile court cases involving former senior government and military officials accused of corruption. They have also targeted lawyers representing some of those former officials, including Manvel Grigorian, a retired army general prosecuted on corruption charges.
Last week one of Grigorian’s lawyers, Arsen Mkrtchian, was confronted outside a court in Yerevan by protesters furious with his client’s recent release from pretrial detention. Some of those protesters verbally abused Mkrtchian and spat at his car.
Armenia’s Chamber of Advocates condemned the incident and demanded stronger government protection of its members dealing with sensitive criminal cases. The chairman of the bar association, Ara Zohrabian, said earlier this week that failure to do so would put lawyers at risk of serious physical attacks.
The resulting bill drafted by the Justice Ministry and the Chamber of Advocates calls for criminalizing slander, insults and threats voiced against lawyers. All forms of libel were decriminalized in Armenia about a decade ago.
Not all Armenian lawyers agree with the proposed bill. Yervand Varosian, a prominent trial attorney, considers it a potential threat to the freedom of expression in the country.
“Why is it necessary to criminalize slander in the case of lawyers but not journalists?” Varosian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Wednesday. “Why don’t we also protect doctors, prosecutors, investigators, politicians or government officials [in the same fashion?]”
Varosian said that relevant authorities should instead “talk and explain things to the society.” “The lawyers must be in a situation where the society understands their role and importance,” he added.
Armenian judges dealing with ongoing corruption cases have also faced such angry reactions. Late last month, the national Union of Judges condemned what it called growing “hate speech” against some of its members. The union urged Armenian authorities, political and civic groups as well as ordinary citizens to refrain from demanding explanations for court rulings, discrediting judges or exerting any pressure on them.
Grigorian’s release from jail earlier in December was the result of one such ruling. It provoked angry street protests in the town of Echmiadzin where the disgraced general lived before being arrested in June. The protests resumed late last week, with several dozen people blocking a highway leading from Yerevan to Echmiadzin. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on Tuesday warned them againstresorting to more such blockages.