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U.S. Embassy Honors Prosecuted Armenian Activist

Civic activist Mariam Sukhudian

Civic activist Mariam Sukhudian

The U.S. Embassy in Armenia has publicly honored a young Armenian activist who was prosecuted for publicizing alleged sexual and other abuse at a Yerevan boarding school, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch presented the embassy's Women of Courage award to Mariam Sukhudian, a leader of the environment protection group SOS Teghut.

Yovanovitch confirmed that the award was granted in appreciation of Sukhudian's work at a school for children with special needs located in Yerevan's southern Nubarashen suburb.

Sukhudian, 30, was among about a dozen young people who worked as volunteers at the boarding school from April-June 2008. In subsequent public statements, they accused the school of failing to ensure minimal standards of teaching and hygiene and of routinely ill-treating students.

They also quoted some schoolgirls as alleging sexual abuse by one of their teachers. Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls, Diana Amirkhanian, and informed Armenian media about the claims. The school administration strongly denied the allegations.

An ensuing police investigation cleared the school administration and the accused teacher of any wrongdoing, saying that Amirkhanian withdrew her allegations. The police then accused Sukhudian of persuading the girl, who graduated from the school in June 2008, to falsely incriminate her teacher for "personal gain." Sukhudian was formally charged in August 2009 with "false denunciation," a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Facing a mounting public outcry against their actions, the police dropped that charge in October 2009 and replaced it with the less serious accusation of slander, which carries a heavy fine and prison sentence of up to three years. Sukhudian said at the time that a police investigator offered to drop the criminal case altogether if she asked for an official pardon. She said she rejected that offer.

Sukhudian told RFE/RL she considers the award a clear signal to police dealing with the case. She predicted that the accusation could be dropped soon.

The case against Sukhudian has been condemned by leading Armenian human rights organizations. They say Armenian boarding schools, which are primarily supposed to educate orphans and disabled children, have long been notorious for their lack of transparency, poor sanitary conditions, and ill-treatment of students.

Sukhudian is also known for her active participation in street protests staged by SOS Teghut and other local environment protection groups against controversial mining projects.