Government-backed amendments to the Criminal Code passed by Armenia’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.
More than 50 Armenians have been charged with defamation and hundreds of others investigated on the same grounds since the amendments took effect in September. At least six of them have already been found guilty by courts.
Many of those individuals have been prosecuted for insulting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Opposition and human rights groups have strongly criticized the criminalization of insults. Western watchdogs such as Freedom House and Amnesty International have added their voice to the criticism.
Pashinian’s political allies have repeatedly dismissed calls for a repeal of the legislation, insisting that it does not constitute an infringement of free speech.
In a surprise announcement, Justice Minister Karen Andreasian said over the weekend that the punitive measure will be excluded from a new Criminal Code that will come into force next month. Pashinian and other government officials now believe that its enforcement is no longer “expedient,” he wrote on Facebook.
Andreasian defended the authorities’ earlier decision to criminalize insults, saying that it was necessary to “rein in the shameful and unacceptable behavior of certain groups and individuals.”
Armenian press freedom groups welcomed the move while questioning the reason for it given by the minister. They said that the authorities simply bowed to the domestic and Western pressure.
“I think that this law has never been necessary and it has not had any positive impact,” said Ashot Melikian of the Yerevan-based Committee to Protect Free Speech.
Melikian said that the Armenian Civil Code, which sets fines for insults, must be the sole legal instrument for dealing with slanderous public statements. The authorities tripled the maximum amount of those fines to 3 million drams ($6,800) last year.
All forms of slander and defamation had already been decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during former President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule.