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Armenian NGOs say Prosecutors Harass Activists

Opposition groups say law used to silence them.
By Karine Asatrian
Armenian rights groups are worried by the arrest of Mariam Sukhudian, a youth activist who was charged with libel after she alleged mistreatment in a boarding school, and say it is the latest in a series of cases intended to muzzle the opposition.



Sukhudian, an activist from the ecological group SOS Teghut, worked as a volunteer in the school in Yerevan last year and said she uncovered systematic abuse of the children by their teachers. Her allegations were broadcast on the news programme Haylur on public television in November.



But instead of prosecuting the school authorities based on her allegations, which included filmed interviews with those said to be involved, the state prosecutors decided to charge her with defamation.



“She made false accusations to the media, according to which the pupils at Special School Number 11 in Nubarashen received sexual demands from the now-former Armenian language teacher Levon Avagian,” a spokeswoman for the Armenian prosecutor’s office said.



“[The teachers] categorically denied that sexual demands had been made. Diana Amirkhanian, the subject of one of the reports, also said that during her interview she gave incorrect information at the request of Mariam Sukhudian, who was working as a volunteer in the school.”



Sukhudian denies inventing the testimony and says Diana Amirkhanian, who was interviewed on camera for the reports and whose allegations formed the basis of one of them, had been placed under pressure to retract her evidence.



Sukhudian said she had regularly been harassed by the police, as had activists from her group, which aims to prevent the destruction of the forests of Teghut.



“My comrades have often come under pressure – different phone calls, meetings warning us to forget about it, to give up activism. They did not like this. We are fighting for the environment, for our future, but it turns out some people are against us,” she said.



A group of nine non-governmental organisations – including the Helsinki Association, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, the Women’s Resource Centre – agreed with her.



They were so concerned by the case that they issued a joint statement accusing the authorities of systematically persecuting activists, demanding that the case against Sukhudian be closed and that the people who opened the case be punished.



“The very fact of the legal investigation of the ecological activist Mariam Sukhudian is another clear example of the intolerance of alternative opinions,” they said.



The prosecutor’s office denied any political pressure had been brought to bear on them to open the case, and made what appeared to be a veiled warning against any media outlets that repeated the activists’ claims.



“After Mariam Sukhudian started to deny the allegations made against her, various publications and assessments of the situation began to appear in the press. The general prosecutor, who has taken these assessments into account, regularly sends the publications to the police for assessment,” said a spokeswoman for the prosecutors’ office.



But Mikael Danielian, head of the Helsinki Association, refused to be cowed. He said the criminal case was part of a very worrying trend to intimidate activists by prosecuting just a few of them.



“These have been of a selective nature, since they have not applied to all civil society activists,” he said. He said several other activists had also been charged after they campaigned against powerful interest groups.



Arshaluys Hakobian, a lawyer and member of the Helsinki Association, was arrested on June 8 just a few days after the Yerevan mayoral elections. He was accused of violence against the authorities on the evidence of two policemen who said he attacked them when they asked him to give evidence related to electoral misconduct.



Other opposition-minded activists on trial include journalists Nikol Pashinian, accused of involvement in mass protests last year, and Arman Babajanian, the editor of an opposition daily who has been charged with fraudulently avoiding military service in June 2006.



Danielian doubted that these would be the last such arrests, but said he and his colleagues would not stop campaigning.



“There have always been people who think differently, and always will,” he said.



Karine Asatrian is a reporter with A1+ web site and is a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.

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