The amendments to the Armenian Criminal Code made “grave insults” directed at individuals because of their “public activities” crimes punishable by heavy fines and a prison sentence of up to three months. Those individuals may include government and law-enforcement officials, politicians and other public figures.
The first criminal case stemming from the new Criminal Code clauses was reportedly opened a month ago. The police went on to launch about a dozen other investigations of this kind. A police spokesperson declined to clarify on Wednesday whether all of them relate to insults aimed at Pashinian.
The police department of Yerevan’s Avan and Nor Nork disticts is conducting several such inquiries. One of its senior investigators, Sargis Papoyan, acknowledged that all of them are targeting individuals who insulted Pashinian, including with social media posts “containing swear words of sexual character.”
Papoyan said one suspect identified by police investigators is a woman who posted a picture of Pashinian on Facebook and commented on it in an offensive manner.
“That person has said that the reason for her comment containing a grave insult is the situation on the country’s borders,” the officer told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House deplored the Criminal Code articles shortly after the Armenian authorities began enforcing them. It spoke of a “clear degradation of democratic norms in Armenia, including freedom of expression.”
Alen Simonian, the Armenian parliament speaker and a close Pashinian associate, rejected the criticism earlier this week. “When a child gets to see a politician swearing on the Internet is that freedom of speech?” he said.
Armenian civic activists also see a threat to free speech. One of them, Zaruhi Hovannisian, argued on Wednesday that the new legal provisions do not clearly define “grave insults” and give excessive discretionary authority to law-enfocement bodies.
“As we can see, the new law serves to scrutinize comments about people in the highest echelons of power,” said Hovannisian.
The controversial amendments have also been condemned by the Armenian opposition. Opposition leaders claim that Pashinian himself has relied heavily on slander and “hate speech” since coming to power in 2018.
All forms of slander and defamation had been decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during then President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule.