Prosecutors accuse Sashik Sultanian, the head of the Yazidi Center for Human Rights, of “inciting ethnic enmity between Armenians and Yazidis,” an ancient Kurdish-speaking religious group.
The probe against Sultanian was launched in October 2020, after he conducted an interview with the Yezidinews.am website in June that year. He has been restricted from leaving Armenia.
In the interview, Sultanian said that Yazidis face discrimination, their rights are not protected, and they are unable to develop their culture, language, or practice their religion.
He also claimed Yazidis are underrepresented in local government structures, Armenians seized Yazidi property, and the community is not allowed to develop economically.
Prosecutors argue that Sultanian’s statements don’t fall under human rights advocacy and protected speech “since all allegations mentioned in the interview do not correspond to reality.”
Sultanian says his comments were not directed against the Armenian people, but rather the Armenian government. The interview was deleted on the day of publication at the request of Sultanian.
Several international and national human rights organizations have denounced the proceedings against Sultanian as an assault on freedom of speech that will have a chilling effect on those who stand up for minority rights.
Armenian authorities have obligations to ensure human rights defenders can freely carry out their activities without any restrictions, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said in a letter to Armenia’s top prosecutor ahead the trial.
“This is all the more important when such legitimate speech addresses the treatment of minorities and is aimed at protecting and promoting their rights,” she said.
In June, Human Rights Watch called on Armenian authorities to drop charges against Sultanian, saying his opinions are protected free speech.
UN special rapporteurs on human rights defenders, minority issues, and freedom of expression have also called on Armenian authorities to drop the case.
“It is not incitement to hatred or violence to raise human rights concerns about the treatment of minorities,” the UN experts said in August. “We call on Armenia to drop these criminal charges, which appear designed simply to intimidate Mr. Sultanian and others who stand up for minority rights.”
There are only an estimated 1.5 million Yazidis in the world, mostly of whom live in northern Iraq. There are smaller populations in Syria, Turkey, and in the European diaspora.
There are about 40,000 Yazidis in Armenia, and they make up the largest minority group in the mono-ethnic South Caucasus country with a population of about 3 million people.
The next hearing in the trial of Sultanian is scheduled for January 26.
Despite refusing to generally review the measure of restraint against Sultanian, the court allowed the Yazidi activist to travel abroad from November 30 to December 8 to attend the 14th session of the UN Forum of Minority Issues in Geneva, Switzerland.