Freedom House calls on Armenian parliament to repeal 'Grave Insult' law
Freedom House concerned by Armenia’s ‘grave insult’ law
The human rights organization Freedom House has called on the Armenian Parliament to repeal the law on “grave insult”. This refers to the abolition of Article 137.1 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes insulting persons engaged in “public activities”. A “grave insult” is punishable by a fine or arrest.
This is not the first warning from Freedom House regarding this particular legislation. The human rights organization believes that it threatens Armenia’s achievements in the field of democracy and law.
Local experts and journalistic organizations also opposed the adoption of this article by the ruling majority of the Parliament. They stated that the political force that carried out the revolution and came to power with democratic slogans legislates restrictions on freedom of speech.
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“Regression of democracy and threat to freedom of speech”
Freedom House’s statement refers to the verdict handed down in Armenia in early February. According to the court decision, an Armenian citizen will be fined 500,000 drams ($1,000) for insulting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the ruling party’s presidential candidate, High-Tech Industry Minister Vahagn Khachaturyan.
“We are extremely concerned about the first verdict convicting an Armenian citizen under a new article of the Criminal Code, which provides for criminal liability for insulting government officials”, the statement said.
The citizen was charged under article 137.1 of the RA Criminal Code, for “a grave insult committed in connection with the public activities of persons.”
By “public activity”, the authors of the law mean journalism, performance of official duties, public service, public or political activity. A harsher punishment is envisaged if the insult was addressed to the “elected persons” – that is, a politician, journalist, public figure, or civil servant.
Parliament passed a bill to criminalize grave insults on 30 July 2021. By the end of the year, 263 criminal cases had already been initiated on the fact of insulting civil servants. On February 3, the court made the first decision on one of them.
According to the human rights organization, this indicates “a clear regression of democratic norms in the country and a threat to freedom of speech”.
The organization calls on the National Assembly to repeal article 137.1 of the criminal code, as it violates the principles enshrined in the Armenian constitution and the provisions that are part of the country’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The first warning from Freedom House on the same issue was issued in August last year, immediately after the bill was passed. The organization described the new article of the criminal code as a law threatening freedom of speech.
“The adoption of the draft law on criminal liability for insulting a public figure proves that Armenia’s achievements in recent years in the field of democracy and law are under threat”, the organization said in a statement.
In the Freedom House report “Freedom on the web 2020” Armenia was included in the list of “free” countries, in the report “Freedom in the world 2021” – already in the “partially free”. And in the “Countries in Transition 2021” report, Armenia was already included in the list of “half-formed authoritarian regimes”.
Deputy Justice Minister Grigor Minasyan, in response to an appeal by Freedom House, said that the criminalization of grave insult was appropriate, since “there was an abuse of the right to freedom of speech” in Armenia. According to him, the solution to this problem was a change in legislation:
“As for the fears of our partners, they have been heard. In the future, if any changes are planned, we will all be their witnesses, but we must take into account that there was a problem and it had to be solved. At the moment, this is the solution to prevent such manifestations in our country”.
“One of the most inadmissible articles”
According to human rights defender Arman Tatoyan, the most important laws concerning the rights of citizens are adopted in Armenia with gross violations. He stated that the country’s authorities are abusing their ability to restrict human rights:
“This was one of the most inadmissible articles that has ever been passed and now it has caused serious problems for people. I am convinced that it created problems for law enforcement agencies as well.”
According to the Ombudsman, the project was developed for political reasons, without regard to human rights. Arman Tatoyan believes that “insults and swearing are absolutely unacceptable,” but he does not agree with the methods of struggle of the authorities. According to him, in the summer of 2021, during the election campaign of early parliamentary elections, “hatred and insults were brought to the highest point,” and then they decided to limit them with the help of the criminal code.