(Yerevan) – Armenian authorities have persisted with spurious criminal incitement charges against a human rights activist, Sashik Sultanyan, Human Rights Watch said today. The charges are in retaliation for an online interview Sultanyan gave in which he spoke about a variety of problems he believes the local Yezidi community face in Armenia.
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“Although Armenian authorities might disagree with the content of Sultanyan’s interview, the opinions he expressed in it fall squarely within the boundaries of legitimate speech, protected under international law,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop the charges against Sultanyan and ensure that there is no undue interference in his legitimate human rights work.”
Sultanyan is the chairperson of a nongovernmental group, Yezidi Center for Human Rights, which since 2018 has worked on community mobilization, awareness raising, and anti-corruption issues in Armenia.
On October 3, 2020, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) initiated a criminal investigation against Sultanyan, stemming from an interview he gave to the website Yezidinews.am that was published in June 2020. In the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the investigator refers to several of Sultanyan’s statements to justify the criminal investigation into inciting national enmity among Yezidis, a national and ethnic minority in Armenia.
The investigator referred to Sultanyan’s interview statements alleging, among other things, that Yezidis experience discrimination in Armenia, that they cannot study their language or develop their culture, and that they are underrepresented in local government structures. The investigator also referenced Sultanyan’s allegations that Armenians had seized Yezidi property, that authorities do not protect their rights, and that Yezidis live “in fear.”
The investigation appears to have been opened based on a complaint filed by a leader of the Veto Movement, a radical group that has built a reputation for aggressive hostility against human rights defenders in Armenia.
The criminal case also is flawed procedurally, Human Rights Watch said. Although the investigation was opened in October 2020, the authorities provided information to Sultanyan about it only in May 2021. In a response dated November 21, 2020, to an official request for information, the NSS confirmed to Sultanyan that there was a criminal investigation underway but did not provide him with any further information or a copy of the decision to open the investigation. The NSS informed Sultanyan that he had no procedural status in the investigation and thus could not demand access to further information about the case. The refusal to share information with Sultanyan even when he was a subject of investigation undermines Sultanyan’s rights to a fair process and an effective remedy protected under articles 6 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
On May 20, the NSS confiscated from Sultanyan three computers, one of which belonged to a family member, two telephones, and several USB sticks.
On June 2, 2021, Human Rights Watch wrote to the prosecutor’s office, urging it to drop charges against Sultanyan and ensure that he is able to do his legitimate human rights work without undue interference. In its June 10 response, the prosecutor’s office stated that the investigation had been opened “according to national and international norms,” and that the circumstances cannot be interpreted as violations of Sultanyan’s rights.
The authorities have wrongly characterized Sultanyan’s statements as “incitement,” Human Rights Watch said. They fall within the boundaries of legitimate speech protected under international law, in particular article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As a party to both treaties, the Armenian government has specific legal obligations to protect freedom of speech.
“Armenian authorities are violating Sultanyan’s right to his freedom of expression,” Gogia said. “While fighting national and ethnic hatred is the government’s responsibility, it’s not achieved through criminalizing legitimate speech or otherwise violating the rights of those who speak out on sensitive matters.”