Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s alliance and the main opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) on Tuesday continued to blame each other for a transgender activist’s unprecedented speech in the Armenian parliament which caused a stir in the socially conservative country.
Pashinian also hit out at former President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), saying that some of its senior members are “gay activists.”
The scandal broke out during last week’s parliamentary hearings in Yerevan chaired by Naira Zohrabian, the BHK-affiliated chairperson of a parliament committee on human rights. They were attended by lawmakers, government officials as well as representatives of local non-governmental organizations.
One of those groups, Right Side, champions LGBT rights. Its transgender leader, Lilit Martirosian, also spoke at the hearings, complaining about widespread hostility and discrimination against sexual minorities in Armenia.
The presence of an LGBT activist on the Armenian parliament floor visibly surprised and angered Zohrabian. She berated Martirosian for bringing up issues which she said are not on the agenda of the hearings.
Zohrabian claimed afterwards that the hitherto little-known activist was invited, without her knowledge, to the hearings by Maria Karapetian, a parliament deputy from Pashinian’s My Stem alliance. Karapetian and other pro-government lawmakers denied that, saying that all participants of the discussion received written invitations from Zohrabian. The BHK parliamentarian rejected those claims as “blatant lies.”
The bitter recriminations came amid furious reactions to Martirosian’s public appearance from nationalist and conservative groups hostile to the Armenian LGBT community. More than a hundred members and supporters of those groups rallied outside the parliament building on Monday. Riot police stopped them from entering the building and protesting inside it.
Pashinian weighed in on the controversy on Tuesday, accusing Zohrabian of staging a “political provocation” against the parliament majority loyal to him. He said a security agency protecting the parliament building shared with him a list of individuals, including Lilit Martirosian, invited to the hearings, which was signed by the Zohrabian.
The prime minister went on to challenge the BHK to consider recalling Zohrabian and naming another head of the parliament committee.
The BHK’s parliamentary faction, which is the second largest in the National Assembly, was quick to hold an emergency meeting and voice strong support with its embattled member.
“Our faction believes that Naira Zohrabian did not violate any rules of ethical parliamentary conduct or provisions of the parliament statues or any other legal norm,” said Gevorg Petrosian, another senior BHK parliamentarian known for his vocal opposition to LGBT rights.
The BHK’s top leader, Gagik Tsarukian, threw his weight Zohrabian on Monday. Tsarukian described people’s non-traditional sexual orientation as a “vice” which must not be allowed to “spread” in Armenia.
Another BHK deputy, Vartan Ghukasian, went farther, saying that all “perverts” must be expelled from the country. “Send them to Holland,” Ghukasian told reporters. “We want … females to be females and males to be males. You can’t mix female with male. It’s shameful.”
Pashinian’s bloc was also attacked by Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the former ruling HHK. “Yes, something has changed in our country. Under the HHK, a transgender person would not have delivered a speech in the National Assembly,” Sharmazanov said in a video statement posted on Facebook on Friday.
Pashinian countered that Martirosian had legally changed her previous, male first name, Vagharshak, during Sarkisian’s rule. He said that the transgender activist’s current passport issued in 2015 identifies her as a male. “Is it a common practice among the Republicans to have men named Lilit?” he scoffed.
“When I was telling them that ‘you are gay activists’ they did not believe me,” Pashinian added mockingly. “They just can’t avoid that status and this is further proof [of that.]”
Meanwhile, the fallout from Martirosian’s public statement prompted serious concern from the European Union. In an extraordinary joint statement issued on Tuesday, the EU Delegation in Armenian and the Yerevan-based embassies of EU member states condemned “hate speech, including death threats directed at Ms. Lilit Martirosian, her colleagues and the LGBTI community as a whole.”
“The EU calls on all in Armenia who promote and believe in the universality of human rights to condemn hate speech and on law enforcement agencies to take urgent steps to guarantee the physical safety of Armenian citizens and to investigate allegations against those suspected of perpetrating hate crimes,” said the statement.