Gay Rights Under Attack in Armenia
Attacks on a bar in central Yerevan and trouble at a march in support of tolerance show just how far away Armenia is from the equality its constitution proclaims, activists say.
The DIY Club, known as a gay hangout, was firebombed on May 8. In a second incident on May 15, swastikas were sprayed on the bar’s walls.
Two young men were arrested in connection with the firebombing, but were later released on bail.
Leading politicians from the opposition as well as from the ruling Republican Party spoke out in defence of the two suspects. This outraged civil right activists, who said the statements contributed to inciting attacks that took place on a diversity march that followed.
The demonstration was held to mark World Day of Cultural Diversity on May 21, and included refugees and ethnic minorities as well as homosexuals.
However, its opponents were convinced it was a gay pride parade, so they staged what they described as an “anti-parade”, which ended with them confronting the marchers. Skirmishes between the two groups did not escalate into wider violence.
“There have always been clashes, it’s just that no one talked about them. And on Diversity Day, there was an even bigger clash,” said Mamikon Hovsepyan, one of the organisers of the diversity parade and head of the PINK group, which campaigns for public awareness of gay rights issues.
“After the club was attacked, those arrested were released on bail. And then this happened. It basically means that terrorism has support from Armenian politicians.”
The DIY Club has been under police guard since the day of the parade. It had been boarded up after the two earlier attacks, but on May 21, rioters broke in and smashed it up.
No one has been arrested for this latest attack, although police say they are investigating it.
“My club was burned, everything was broken, and I continue to get threats saying they will burn, kill me and so on,” said the bar’s owner Armine Oganezova, a well-known rock musician who uses the stage name Tsomak. “All these specific, deliberate steps are against me, since I hold liberal views and I’ve been to Turkey to give a rock concert and attend a gay parade.”
Oganezova said she heard that the young men arrested on suspicion of carrying out the firebombing had their bail paid by Artsvik Minasyan and Hrayr Karapetyan, two members of parliament from the opposition Dashnaktsutyun party.
Both Minasyan and Hrayr Karapetyan deny paying bail, but they have spoken favourably of what the suspects are accused of doing.
“I am sure these young men acted in accordance with our public and national ideology, and that they acted correctly,” Minasyan said in an interview with the website www.panorama.am.
Eduard Sharmazanov, deputy speaker of parliament and a leading member of the ruling Republican Party, also spoke positively about the alleged attackers in a post on his Facebook page.
Artak Kirakosyan, head of the Civil Society Institute, an NGO that promotes democracy values, said comments of this kind from politicians were very worrying.
“The atmosphere of immunity that is spread by Sharmazanov and the representatives of Dashnaktsutyun is very dangerous,” he said. “They themselves do not know what horrors will be awoken, and in future they won’t be able to stop it,” he said.
The “anti-parade” participants whom IWPR interviewed, such as Armen Aghayan of the nationalist youth group Hayazn, did not support the firebombing, but said they would continue to battle attempts to secure wider rights for gay people.
“Whether the constitution permits homosexuality or not, it is my duty rather than my right to call it amoral. I must protect my child from everything of this kind, and tell him it is deviancy,” he said.
The anti-gay activists base their views on the Bible, although they have not won approval from the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“We do not hate people, we hate the sin itself, not the sinner. It is necessary to find a civilised solutions,” Father Shmavon Ter-Ghevondyan said. “All violence creates more violence, and you cannot resolve any matter that way.”
Armenia’s constitution sets out equality for all before the law, but the country only repealed a law against homosexuality in 2003, under pressure from European institutions.
According to a 2011 report from the Armenian Office of the Helsinki Civil Assembly in 2011, homosexuals face violence and discrimination from police, and within the army and the prison system. As a result, they tend not to report crimes committed against them, since they worry they will only face more abuse.
The office of Armenia’s official human rights ombudsman has designed a strategy to protect sexual minorities, including legal and procedural reforms ensuring access to justice. It has also proposed ways to prevent violence against homosexuals in prisons, to prevent discrimination in the workplace, and to bar anti-gay propaganda from the media.
Karine Ionesyan reports for the Civil Society Institute in Armenia.