Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
IWPR Promotes Anti-Discrimination Debate in Armenia
Arman Sahakyan (right) in court with his lawyer Maro Khachaturyan. (Photo: Nor Serund)
Armenian law protects minorities against hate speech and discriminatory comments. However, a loophole in the legislation means that members of sexual minorities are not protected, and campaigners have been calling for legislation to be introduced to redress the situation.
IWPR has been facilitating discussions for humans rights defenders in Armenia to explore what steps can be taken to legislate rights for lesbian, gay and transgender (LGBT) people.
Anti-discrimination activists highlighted a legal precedent in May this year in which a homophobic article was ruled to be defamatory. But they warned that the court decision regarding the article, published by the Iravunk newspaper a year earlier, did not go far enough.
A court in the capital Yerevan ordered a retraction and instructed the newspaper’s chief editor Hovhannes Galajyan, who wrote the May 2014 article, to pay damages of 250,000 drams (500 US dollars) to each of three plaintiffs. (See Hate Speech vs. Free Speech in Armenia .)
Galajyan had accused gay people of serving the interests “of an international homosexual lobby” and went on to name 60 people as “enemies of the people and the state”.
He is currently appealing against the court’s decision, arguing that it amounted to a violation of freedom of speech.
One of the plaintiffs, Arman Sahakyan, took part in a Yerevan roundtable which IWPR held on May 25 to discuss these the ruling and its implications. He noted that the Iravunk article had called for “zero tolerance” of gay people and had urged public- and private-sector employers not to hire any of the 60 blacklisted individuals, and to dismiss any who were on staff.
Sahakyan’s lawyer Maro Khachaturyan said the court ruling set an important legal precedent, but did not go far enough towards closing the gap in the law under which members of sexual minorities are not covered by the ban on hate speech.
“The verdict can be seen as a real achievement, given that in March, Armenia’s highest court of appeal rejected a case brought by 16 other individuals who alleged that Iravunk had defamed and discriminated against them in the same manner,” Khachaturyan said. “Even so, the court deemed Galajyan’s article defamatory without stating that it also contained discriminatory and hate speech…. We failed to prove the article contained deliberate calls for discrimination and hate speech.”
Khachaturyan explained that doing so would be very difficult unless specific anti-discrimination law was passed.
Armenia has ratified international and European conventions on discrimination, and Article 226 of the criminal code outlaws hate speech, but only in ethnic, racial and religious terms.
Galajyan and his lawyer Levon Baghdasaryan were invited to participate in the discussion, held in partnership with the Public Journalism Club and its Media Centre project. However, they declined.
Sahakyan and others named in the defamatory article are members of the Nor Serund (New Generation) NGO. Its head, Sergei Gabrielyan, told the IWPR event that Galajyan’s article maligned and misrepresented the organisation’s activities.
“Various state agencies are spreading hatred and hostility towards us [on the grounds] that we protect gay rights,” Gabrielyan told the event. “Soon after the article was published, the windscreen of Arman’s car was broken. We asked the police to ensure our safety, but they refused, telling us that this service should be paid for and we should go to a private security agency. So we cannot be protected as citizens.”
Representatives of Nor Serund have applied to the court of appeal, challenging the amount of compensation they were awarded and asking for the ruling to make it explicit that this was a case of discrimination.
Hasmik Harutyunyan, an expert with the Protection of Rights Without Borders NGO, said Armenia needed a separate law to enshrine the rights of sexual minorities.
“We have provisions in the education law, the criminal code and the constitution, but they are all declarative in nature. An individual who suffers discrimination cannot demand justice, as there is no legal basis to refer to,” Harutyunyan said.
Isabella Sargsyan, programme director at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, said new legislation was needed to protect the rights of many minorities, not just the LGBT community.
“It affects each and every one of us, including women, people with disabilities and those in prison. Anyone in these or other situations can become a victim of discrimination,” she said, adding that Armenia’s justice ministry had expressed an interest in working with civil society groups to draft an anti-discrimination law.
Sargsyan said it was vital to combine legislative reform with a public awareness campaign.
“On the one hand, there needs to be a law, but on the other, we need to work within NGOs to ensure that the law is enforced. It will be impossible to achieve results in the courts unless we work with the public,” she said “That means a long struggle for all of us. We want all citizens to have equal rights and equal opportunities.”