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Amnesty Decries Lack Of Protection For Gays, Dissenters In Armenia

  • Richard Solash

Armine Oganezova, the owner of DIY, an alternative music bar in Yerevan, stands inside what is left of her club after a fire-bomb attack in May 2012.

Armine Oganezova, the owner of DIY, an alternative music bar in Yerevan, stands inside what is left of her club after a fire-bomb attack in May 2012.

A new report by U.K.-based rights watchdog Amnesty International decries the lack of protections for Armenia's beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

Titled "Armenia: No Space For Difference," the report also highlights the intimidation and harassment of journalists and activists who question the government's official line on the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh or who expose abuses within the military.

Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty's researcher on the South Caucasus, told RFE/RL that Armenia has made notable improvements in ensuring freedom of expression since its independence in 1991, as long as certain topics remain off-limits.

"These are usually the issues that are considered either very sensitive for the Armenian public or issues that fall outside of the mainstream view," Nozadze said. "Those who exercise this kind of freedom of expression, we found, occasionally face harassment and threats. In analyzing those cases, it becomes clear that the Armenian government is failing to protect the freedom of expression of those individuals."

The report says that in condoning violence against both gays and dissenters on sensitive topics, officials often hide behind the so-called "will of the people" or deride the individuals as "un-Armenian" and a threat to "national interests."

'Perverting Our Society'

While Armenia decriminalized same-sex sexual relations in 2003, homophobic attitudes remain entrenched. Amnesty said statements by officials reinforcing those attitudes "lead to a climate where grave human rights abuses are perpetrated and tolerated."

The report quotes Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson for Armenian's ruling Republican Party and the deputy speaker of parliament, as calling an arson attack in May 2012 on a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan "completely right and justified."

He claimed that supporters of gay rights were "perverting our society and defaming Armenian national identity."

RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on August 7 that the country's police had proposed a ban on promoting "nontraditional sexual relationships."

The bill, perhaps drafted to emulate similar measures recently codified in Russia, was quickly withdrawn from consideration.

"The fact that the bill was proposed in the first place probably shows the attitude of the police and law enforcement agencies toward LGBT [individuals], and [they are] actually the institution that should be protecting them," Nozadze said. "As to why it was withdrawn, there are several reasons that local civil society has mentioned, and I think most of it has to do with pressure from the West rather than, unfortunately, the genuine will of Armenian law-enforcement or policy-making agencies."

Amnesty said several NGOs have reported that "questioning the official and mainstream view on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or even using the phrase 'territories occupied by Armenia' carries the risk of being labeled as traitors."

'Chilling Effect'

Nagorno-Karabakh, the breakaway Azerbaijani territory populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians, was the site of a bitter 1988-94 war. Analysts say Yerevan and Baku both use the conflict to rouse nationalist sentiments.

The report notes two attempts in April 2012 by civil society activists to hold a festival of Azerbaijani films, an event meant to promote cultural understanding.

Amnesty said authorities apparently supported protesters who obstructed the first attempt and that police officers did nothing when protesters vandalized the location of the planned second attempt.

The report also decries official intimidation of journalists and activists who expose hazing and abuses within the military.

"Even where the investigation and questioning does not lead to prosecution or cases are subsequently withdrawn, such action has a chilling effect on the work of journalists and human rights defenders, raising concern about Armenia’s commitment to its international human rights obligations," Amnesty said.

The watchdog called on Yerevan to ensure that minorities and dissenting views are protected as the country hopes to sign an Association Agreement with the EU ahead of November's Eastern Partnership summit.