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U.S. Watchdog Again Blasts ‘Degradation Of Democratic Norms’ In Armenia


ARMENIA -- Police detain demonstrators during a rally demanding the resignation of the country's prime minister over his handling of the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in Yerevan, December 8, 2020.

U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House has criticized the Armenian authorities for continuing to prosecute citizens accused of insulting state officials.

In a weekend statement, it again said that the practice testifies to a “clear degradation of democratic norms” in Armenia.

Amendments to the Armenian Criminal Code passed by the country’s government-controlled parliament last summer 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 Armenian police have launched more than 260 criminal investigations stemming from the amendments that took effect in September amid strong criticism from local and international human rights groups. Many of those cases reportedly target people accused of offending Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

One of them became last week the first person convicted under the new legislation. A court fined him 500,000 drams (just over $1,000) for swearing at Pashinian in a phone call with a police officer.

“We are concerned with the first conviction of an Armenian citizen under a new law criminalizing ‘serious insults’ of government officials,” read the Freedom House statement. “This shows a clear degradation of democratic norms and creates a chilling effect for free expression in Armenia.”

The U.S. watchdog already called for a repeal of the Criminal Code articles shortly after the authorities began enforcing them in September. Armenian officials dismissed those calls.

Vladimir Vartanian, the pro-government chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, again defended the amendments on Monday.

“We have to understand that freedom of speech has limits,” said Vartanian. “We have to understand that there are some expressions that absolutely do not fit into the legitimate boundaries of free speech. Insults definitely don’t.”

The controversial amendments have also been condemned by the Armenian opposition. Opposition leaders say that Pashinian himself has relied heavily on slander and “hate speech” before and after 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.

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