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UN, EU Express Concerns About Threats Against Armenia's LGBT Community

Lilit Martirosian complained of widespread hostility and discrimination against sexual minorities in Armenia.
Lilit Martirosian complained of widespread hostility and discrimination against sexual minorities in Armenia.

The United Nations, European Union, and local rights groups have expressed concerns about "hate speech" directed toward Armenia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community following reports of death threats against a transgender woman who spoke in the country's National Assembly.

The controversy could also represent the first major challenge to reform-minded Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's My Step alliance from nationalist and conservative groups in the South Caucasus country since popular street protests swept him to power last year.

The latest incident stems from reported threats against Lilit Martirosian, a transgender woman who spoke during an April 5 parliamentary hearing on human rights attended by lawmakers, government officials, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.

Martirosian, representing the LGBT rights group Right Side, complained of widespread hostility and discrimination against sexual minorities in Armenia and identified herself as "a representation of a tortured, raped, kidnapped, physically assaulted, burned, stabbed, murdered, robbed, and unemployed Armenian transgender."

Naira Zohrabian of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) parliamentary faction, who chaired the meeting, immediately challenged Martirosian's right to speak, saying the topic was not on the panel's agenda.

"We had three issues today to discuss: judicial reform, the problems of disabled people, and children," Zohrabian said.

"To take advantage of this opportunity to try to raise the question that we do not have on our agenda at this time, I consider disrespectful treatment first of all to me as the chairman of the commission, and disrespect toward the parliament."

On April 8, more than 100 supporters of nationalist and conservative groups rallied in protest against Martirosian's appearance at the parliament, with riot police being called in to prevent them from entering the building.

BHK officials immediately backed Zohrabian's position and hit out at the country's LGBT community.

BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian described people's nontraditional sexual orientation as a "vice" that must not be allowed to "spread" in Armenia.

BHK lawmaker Vartan Ghukasian said that all "perverts" must be expelled from the country.

"Send them to Holland," Ghukasian told reporters. "We want...females to be females and males to be males. You can't mix female with male. It's shameful."

Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the former ruling Republican Party (HHK), also took a swipe at Pashinian's My Step bloc.

"Yes, something has changed in our country. Under the HHK, a transgender person would not have delivered a speech in the National Assembly," Sharmazanov said.

International Concerns

The fallout and reported threats against Martirosian from nationalist and conservative protesters brought condemnation from international organizations and rights groups.

"No threat of violence, nor any form of discrimination against any group or individual, can be tolerated," the UN office in Yerevan said in a statement on April 10, adding that it "is concerned over recent hate speech and cases of violence against human rights and LGBTI activists."

A day earlier, the European Union said in a statement that the bloc's member states were "gravely concerned with a number of recent cases where serious threats, including death threats, have been made against minorities and human rights defenders in Armenia."

"Hate speech, including death threats directed at Ms. Lilit Martirosian, her colleagues, and the LGBTI community as a whole represent the latest in this worrying trend and amount to discrimination prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms to which Armenia is party and which is reflected in the Constitution of Armenia."

Daniel Ioannisian of the Yerevan-based Union of Informed Citizens demanded that the country's Investigative Committee initiate a criminal probe based on the statement of one of the protest participants.

Ioannisian told RFE/RL that the protester had made a death threat and displayed a knife to cameras at the scene. "It's obvious that this person is threatening murder and takes out a knife to show the threat is real. We expect a criminal case to be filed and the person to be held accountable," he said.

Pashinian, meanwhile, pointed out that Martirosian had legally changed her previous -- male -- first name, Vagharshak, and was issued a passport during the time the former ruling HHK party was in power.

Rights groups have expressed concerns about the attacks on groups that defend LGBT rights in the former Soviet Union.

Some activists in Armenia have cited continued systematic homophobia in Armenia even after former journalist Pashinian's rise to the premiership last May following weeks of nonviolent streets protests and his calls for human rights and a crackdown on corruption.

The Foreign Ministry stated this week that the government was fully committed to the protection and promotion of human rights.

"The nonviolent democratic revolution in Armenia is the best evidence that human rights are generally effective if they become part of a social consensus and are perceived as universal social and moral values," Foreign Ministry spokesman Anna Naghdalian said.

With reporting by The Armenian Mirror Spectator

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