Shahen Harutiunian, the 22-year-old leader of a small party called Shant Alliance, is one of several hundred individuals investigated by the authorities under legal amendments condemned by Armenian and Western human rights groups.
The amendments to the Criminal Code passed by Armenia’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.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor-General, 31 Armenians faced such criminal charges by January 1. Many of them are thought to have been accused of offending Pashinian.
Harutiunian may also be indicted. He was summoned to a police station in Yerevan on January 20 just days after denouncing on his Facebook page “yet another act of high treason and manifestation of indignity” by Pashinian. He also echoed former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s famous characterization of the prime minister as a “nation-destroying scourge.”
Harutiunian publicly repeated his comments before being questioned by police officers for a second time.
“I refused to give any explanations and left the police station and then made the written comment for a third time,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Friday. “Maybe they will summon me again in the coming days.”
The activist argued that he did not swear at Pashinian and simply expressed his political views. He accused the authorities of trying to muzzle him and other vocal critics of their policies.
A spokesperson for Armenia’s Investigative Committee said, meanwhile, that he has not been formally charged yet.
Harutiunian had risen to prominence during former President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule when he campaigned for the release of his father Shant, a fringe nationalist politician jailed for organizing a violent anti-government protest in 2013.
Shant Harutiunian was set free six months after Sarkisian was toppled in 2018 mass protests led by Pashinian. His son actively participated in the “velvet revolution” and worked in 2019 as an aide to a pro-Pashinian parliamentarian.
Shahen Harutiunian began openly challenging the current government after Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. His party helped to defeat Pashinian’s Civil Contract in at least two local elections held last fall.
All forms of slander and defamation had been decriminalized in Armenia in 2010. The Pashinian administration’s decision to restore criminal liability for such offenses drew criticism from local and international human rights groups as well as 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.
The U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House has repeatedly called a repeal of the controversial amendments, saying that they highlight a “clear degradation of democratic norms” in Armenia.
Vladimir Vartanian, a senior pro-government lawmaker, again defended the amendments last week. “We have to understand that freedom of speech has limits,” he said.
Ruben Melikian, a pro-opposition lawyer representing over a dozen persons prosecuted for insulting Pashinian and other officials, suggested that the criminal cases run counter to the Armenian constitution.
“The stories I hear are so ridiculous that they are enough to declare these articles [of the Criminal Code] unconstitutional,” he said.