The amendments to the Armenian Criminal Code passed by the country’s parliament last summer made “grave insults” directed at individuals because of their “public activities” an offense punishable with hefty fines or prison sentences of up to three months. Those individuals may include government and law-enforcement officials, politicians and other public figures.
Opposition and human rights groups have criticized the measure, calling it an infringement of free speech. Late last year, opposition lawmakers as well as human rights ombudsman Arman Tatoyan asked the Constitutional Court to declare the amendments unconstitutional.
The court said on Friday that it has rejected the appeals. It is due to publicize the full text of the decision by Tuesday.
The Office of the Prosecutor-General reported on Thursday that 51 Armenians have been charged with defamation and hundreds of others investigated on the same grounds since the amendments took effect in September. Six of them have already been found guilty by courts, it said in a statement.
Many of those individuals are thought to have been prosecuted for insulting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
According to the statement, the vast majority of people facing such criminal proceedings are not politicians or journalists. The prosecutors portrayed this as further proof that the controversial law is not meant to suppress press freedom or political dissent.
Ashot Melikian of the Yerevan-based Committee to Protect the Free Speech dismissed that argument.
“Freedom of speech does not just apply to mass media,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “It’s a much broader concept.”
Melikian again called for a repeal of the legislation that has also been criticized by Western watchdogs such as Freedom House and Amnesty International.
Senior lawmakers representing Pashinian’s Civil Contract party have repeatedly dismissed such calls.
All forms of slander and defamation had been decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during former President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule.