A group of environmentalists have taken legal action against Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian in response to his claims that some activists have ulterior motives in campaigning against a U.S.-backed gold mining project in Armenia.
Echoing a statement by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Avinian said last month that the campaign is financed by Armenian mining firms seeking to thwart the multimillion-dollar Amulsar project.
A British-American company, Lydian International, started building mining facilities at the Amulsar gold deposit in southeastern Armenia in 2016 after a lengthy licensing process administered by former authorities in Yerevan. The project was disrupted in June 2018 by several dozen environmentalist and residents of nearby communities blocking all roads leading to Amulsar. The protesters say that gold mining there would cause severe damage to the environment, a claim strongly denied by Lydian.
“There are sincere and honest people who really believe that this project is a disaster,” Avinian said at an October 22 meeting with members of the Armenian community in Tbilisi. “But there are also people who are directly connected to some mining entrepreneurs operating in Armenia, who have been investing quite serious sums … in this campaign.”
Responding to that statement, 15 environmental activists and other citizens opposed to the Amulsar project filed a defamation lawsuit against Avinian this week. A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Gurgen Torosian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service they consider the deputy prime minister’s claims slanderous and want him to retract them.
One of the plaintiffs, Levon Galstian of the Armenian Environmental Front, said he and the fellow activists opted for the legal action after Avinian’s office refused to provide explanations demanded by them.
The office declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday, saying that it has received no formal notifications from a Yerevan court that will deal with the case.
Pashinian similarly suggested in August that some mining companies have sponsored environmentalists’ campaign against Lydian in an effort to scuttle the Amulsar project. He said they thus hope to avoid spending large amounts of money on complying with “unprecedentedly high environmental standards” which the government is planning to enforce at Amulsar and in Armenia’s existing mining industry. The industry’s environment protection record is notoriously poor.
Lydian seized upon Pashinian’s statement to demand that the Armenian authorities to name rival mining firms that have allegedly financed what it regards as an illegal blockade. “How much has been paid to oppose the Amulsar Project and who has been paid?” it said in a statement.
In July 2018, Lydian released a short video that purportedly showed the driver of a car belonging to Armenia’s largest mining enterprise, the Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC), delivering food to the protesters blockading Amulsar. Lydian accused Vahe Hakobian, a former government official linked to ZCMC, of involvement in the disruption of its operations in Armenia. Both Hakobian and the ZCMC management denied such involvement.
In September this year, Pashinian called on the protesters to unblock the Amulsar roads, saying that his government has no “legal grounds” to ban mining operations there. The protesters and Yerevan-based activists rejected the appeal. The government has so far refrained from forcibly restoring Lydian’s access to its would-be mining site.