Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister elected by the parliament heads the government; the president, also elected by the parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. During December 2018 parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by acting prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament. According to the assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms.

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service (NSS) is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into general civilian and military criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. The NSS and the police chiefs report directly to the prime minister and are appointed by the president upon the prime minister’s recommendation. The cabinet appoints the SIS and Investigative Committee chiefs upon the prime minister’s recommendations. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: torture; arbitrary detention, although with fewer reports; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.

The government took steps to investigate and punish alleged abuses by former and current government officials and law enforcement authorities. For example, throughout the year, an investigation continued into the culpability of former high-ranking government officials surrounding events that led to the deaths of eight civilians and two police officers during postelection protests in 2008.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press.

Since the 2018 political transition, the media environment has been freer, as some outlets began to step away from the earlier practice of self-censorship; however, there were reports that some outlets avoided criticizing the authorities so as not to appear “counterrevolutionary.” In its final report on the December 2018 elections, the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Election Observation Mission stated that while most interlocutors noted improvements in media freedom and an increase in plurality of opinions since April 2018, some also noted that the postrevolutionary public discourse was not conducive to criticism of the government, in particular, the then acting prime minister. Many traditional and online media continued to lack objective reporting.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of arrest. After the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” there were calls for legal measures to address hate speech following incidents of advocacy of violence targeting individuals’ political opinions, religious beliefs, as well as sexual and gender identity.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Broadcast and larger-circulation print media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups, most of whom were reportedly tied to the former authorities or the largest parliamentary opposition party, owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint, replacing one government perspective with another in the aftermath of the political transition. Nonetheless, public television was open and accessible to the opposition as well and covered more diverse topics of public interest than before.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the new government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of false social media accounts and attempts to manipulate media, however, continued to increase dramatically during the year. According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government.

The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited revenues from advertising.

The media advertising market did not change substantially after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” and key market players remained the same. According to a 2016 report by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales conglomerate Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most-watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders; it controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating similar to MIS. Internet advertising, although a small segment of the advertising market, increased during the year.

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. Media NGOs advocated for the media sector to be included as a priority sector in the action plan and proposed changes to the Law on Television and Radio that fostered media ownership transparency.

The government maintained a de facto monopoly on digital broadcasting multiplex, while most channels represented the views of the previous government. Some 10 regional television stations remained at risk of closure due to a drop in viewership and advertising. The stations did not receive government licenses to transmit digitally via the single state-owned multiplex following the 2016 national switch to digital broadcasting, and they continued to transmit via the unsupported analog broadcasting system. The heavy cost of starting and maintaining a private multiplex (which could ensure the continuity of those stations) resulted in three unsuccessful tenders with no applicants since the 2016 switchover. As a result, on January 31, the government decided to shut down “Shirak” Public Television, claiming that the station’s analog broadcast was unable to attract a wide audience and that the transfer of the station to a digital broadcast would require significant financial investment, which the government was unable to make. Media watchdogs criticized the decision and urged the government to change legislation to encourage the entrance of private multiplexers into the country and end the state’s monopoly on digital broadcasting.

Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported three cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. Two reporters were attacked by employees of cafes that were being dismantled by Yerevan City Hall in a crackdown against illegal buildings. No criminal charges were filed. In the third case, the bodyguard of former NSS chief Artur Vanetsyan pushed a reporter to the ground.

On February 27, the Kotayk region trial court acquitted Kotayk police department head Arsen Arzumanyan, who had been charged with abuse of office and preventing the professional activities of journalist Tirayr Muradyan in April 2018. On June 5, in answer to an appeal of the acquittal, the Criminal Appeals Court found Arzumanyan guilty and fined him 500,000 drams ($1,000).

Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts raised concerns regarding the unprecedented number of libel and defamation cases launched against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 83 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year, placing a significant financial burden on media outlets.

National Security: According to media experts there was a dramatic increase in false news stories and the spread of disinformation regarding social networks and media during the year. The government claimed that former government representatives, who reportedly owned most media–including television stations with nationwide coverage–used media outlets to manipulate public opinion against authorities.

On April 4, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ordered the NSS to crack down on anyone using mass media or social media to “manipulate public opinion.” Media experts, including some who said there was a need to address fake news and hate speech, criticized the prime minister’s instructions as an attempt to silence free speech. On April 9, the NSS reported the arrest of a person who administered a Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated with the prime minister’s Civil Contract Party. The page spread fake news stories and incited violence, including against members of religious minorities. Although the NSS had investigated the Facebook account on charges of incitement of religious hatred since fall 2018, an arrest was made on this charge only after the prime minister’s April 4 instructions.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

In May, Facebook suspended the accounts of several prominent civil society activists for several weeks. A Facebook account called Digital Granate Civil Initiative ultimately took responsibility for blocking the activists, asserting it sought to “[clean] the internet” of civil society activists, including “foreign agents,” “corrupt politicians,” and members of the LGBTI community. Local digital media experts reinstated the blocked accounts with the help of an international digital rights group, although those behind the campaign to block the accounts remained unknown.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The government expressly supported academic freedom and took measures to depoliticize academia, including the appointment of new boards of trustees of public universities. Under pressure from the public and the government for corruption as well as their lack of support for democratic reforms, several rectors, openly or allegedly affiliated with the previous regime, resigned. This included Aram Simonyan, rector of Yerevan State University, the country’s oldest academic institution. Simonyan, a member of the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia, resigned following months of a very public and controversial standoff with the minister of education, science, culture, and sports.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly. Following the spring 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” the government generally respected this right.

According to the monitoring report of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, for the period from July 2018 through June, freedom of assembly improved after the political changes of spring 2018, resulting in more assemblies held during the year. The report also noted that police methods had become more restrained. The most significant problems observed related to rally participants’ and organizers’ use of hate speech aimed at a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious views.

On August 19, however, police removed peaceful rally participants from a major street in downtown Yerevan and relocated them to a nearby sidewalk. They had been protesting the exploitation of a mine in Jermuk. An August 20 statement from Transparency International Anticorruption Center and other NGOs assessed the incident as the most serious violation of the right to assembly since the 2018 revolution. According to the statement, police used force and arbitrary detention to remove the protesters standing on Baghramyan Avenue from the lanes of traffic, after the protesters were denied access to the grounds around the parliament, which had previously been open to the public. The statement averred that as a result of police actions several persons required medical attention, one in a hospital. On August 20, police asserted that the physical force used was proportionate to the situation.

The government continued to seek accountability for cases of disproportionate force used against protesters by police during the largely peaceful events of April 2018. As a result of two official investigations into police conduct, two police officers were reprimanded. On August 9, however, the government suspended a criminal case that had merged multiple episodes of police violence into a single case after investigators, who had identified 55 victims, interrogated 200 persons, reviewed video recordings, and conducted forensic examinations, stated they were unable to identify the perpetrators. Several other officers charged with abuse of power for their role in using flash grenades were included in an amnesty granted in October 2018. The trial of former chief of internal police troops Levon Yeranosyan, charged with exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences, continued. The trial in another case, involving Masis mayor Davit Hambardzumyan and seven others, charged with attacking protesters in April 2018, also continued. As a result of seven lawsuits, an investigation was underway into alleged police interference with freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, medical assistance rights, nondiscrimination, and freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. The Law on Public Organizations limited the legal standing of NGOs to act on behalf of their beneficiaries in court to environmental issues. The limitations contradict a 2010 Constitutional Court decision that allowed all NGOs to have legal standing in court.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

As of December 2018, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the estimated 65,000 households evacuated in 1988-1994 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and former refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities. The government did not have IDP-specific programs and policies aimed at promoting the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports of nonsystemic discrimination in the acceptance of applications and in detention of asylum seekers based on the country of origin, race, or religion of the asylum seeker, as well as difficulties with integration. Civil society contacts reported discriminatory attitudes and suspicion directed towards foreign migrants seeking employment.

In the first nine months of the year, 15 foreigners were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border via land or air, a decrease from 28 in the first nine months of 2018. Despite a provision in the law exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability for illegal border crossing, authorities required them to remain in detention pending the outcome of their asylum applications or to serve the remainder of their sentences.

Authorities cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law accounts for specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. Three years of legal residence in the country is required for naturalization of refugees who are not ethnic Armenians.

Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in capacity of eligibility officers. Enhanced capacity of the judiciary resulted in an increased number of overruled State Migration Service (SMS) decisions on asylum applications. Following a 2018 administrative court judgment overruling an SMS denial of refugee status to a family from Iraq, the applicants were required to start the asylum process again. In general the courts drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically than before 2018.

Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of protection options, including expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick naturalization gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal right to health care and most other social services as other citizens. Many of the countrywide reforms such as provision of increased social services, higher pensions, and more accessible health care also benefited naturalized refugees.

While the overall quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved over the last decade, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious and gender profiles with non-Apostolic Christian and non-Armenian backgrounds.

Access to Basic Services: Many refugees were unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system, despite legal provisions protecting these rights.

Housing allocated to refugees was in limited supply, in poor condition, and remained, along with employment, refugees’ greatest concern. Many displaced families relied on a rental subsidy program supported by UNHCR and diaspora organizations. Authorities operated an integration house with places for 29 refugees and offered refugees accommodation free of charge during the first months after they acquired refugee status. Language differences created barriers to employment, education, and access to services provided for by law.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory. The SMS also offered integration programs to returnees from Western European countries who either voluntarily returned or were deported by the host country. On November 21, the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing to 112 refugee families who fled from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

According to official data, as of November 1, there were 929 stateless persons in the country, an increase from 801 in October 2018. The increase was believed to be related to the rising number of citizens renouncing their Armenian citizenship with the aim of obtaining citizenship elsewhere, particularly in the Russian Federation. In addition authorities considered approximately 1,400 refugees from Azerbaijan to be stateless as of July.

The law provides for the provision of nationality to stateless children born on the country’s territory.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and laws provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Recent Elections: In December 2018 the country held snap parliamentary elections, preceded by a short and heated but free and competitive campaign with generally equal opportunities for contestants. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won more than 70 percent of the vote and most seats in parliament; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.3 percent and 6.4 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE/ODIHR December 2018 preliminary and March 7 final reports noted, “early parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms…The general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.” The final report noted, however, that although electoral stakeholders did not report any systematic efforts of vote buying and other electoral malfeasance, several interlocutors alleged that short-term contracting of a number of campaign workers and citizen observers was done, mainly by the Prosperous Armenia Party, possibly for the purpose of buying their votes.

ODIHR observers stated contestants “were able to conduct their campaigns freely; fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, expression and movement were fully respected.” At the same time, they emphasized that disinformation, as well as inflammatory exchanges between some candidates, on social networks, were noted during the campaign. Among the few issues that marred the electoral process, the observers noted, “The integrity of campaign finance was undermined by a lack of regulation, accountability, and transparency.” For example, organizational expenses such as for office space, communication, transportation, and staff were not considered election-related and therefore could remain unreported, “undermining the credibility of the reporting system and the transparency of information available to election stakeholders.” Other shortcomings highlighted by OSCE observers included the narrow legal standing for submitting electoral complaints.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not restrict the registration or activity of political parties.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, but the patriarchal nature of society inhibited large-scale participation by women in political and economic life and in decision-making positions in the public sector. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected in October 2018.

The OSCE’s reports on the December 2018 parliamentary elections noted, all candidate lists met the 25 percent gender-quota requirement and that women accounted for 32 percent of the 1,444 total candidates. The OSCE stated, however, that this quota did not provide for the same proportion of representation of women in the parliament, as half of the seats are distributed according to preferential votes. Parties rarely featured women candidates in their campaigns; women only occasionally campaigned on their own and rarely appeared as speakers in rallies observed. Some women candidates were a target of disparaging rhetoric because of their gender.

There are government-mandated seats in the parliament for the country’s four largest ethnic minorities: Yezidi, Kurdish, and the Assyrian and Russian communities. Four members of parliament represented these constituencies.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption. After the May 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” the government opened investigations that revealed systemic corruption encompassing most areas of public and private life. The government launched numerous criminal cases against alleged corruption by former government officials and their relatives, parliamentarians, and in a few instances, by members of the judiciary and their relatives, with cases ranging from a few thousand to millions of U.S. dollars. Many of those cases continued as of year’s end, and additional cases were reported regularly. The government also launched such cases against a few current government officials.

Corruption: The country has a legacy of systemic corruption in many areas, including construction, mining, public administration, the parliament, the judiciary, procurement practices, and provision of grants by the state. There were allegations of embezzlement of state funds, involvement of government officials in questionable business activities, and tax and customs privileges for government-linked companies. In 2018 the government made combatting corruption one of its top priorities and continued to take measures to eliminate it during the year. Although top officials announced the “eradication of corruption” in the country, local observers noted that anticorruption measures needed further institutionalization. Criminal corruption cases were uncovered in the tax and customs services, the ministries of education and health care, and the judiciary.

According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, in the 13 months ending in June, enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations in the amount of 110.5 billion drams (almost $230 million), constituting damages to the state, embezzlement, abuse of official duty, and bribes. Of this amount, 30.1 billon drams ($63 million) was reportedly paid to the state budget; NGOs raised concerns regarding insufficient transparency in this process.

During the year former officials made public announcements of their intent to return assets to the state, allegedly to avoid prosecution. The process by which the government accepted or negotiated such arrangements were unclear.

In December 2018 the Prosecutor General’s Office launched a criminal case against former minister of nature protection and then member of parliament Aram Harutyunyan, for bribery in especially large sums. According to the Special Investigative Service, Harutyunyan misused his position as chair of the interagency tender commission on the establishment of mining rights over the parcels of lands containing minerals of strategic importance, receiving a bribe of $14 million from a business owner in exchange for 10 special licenses for mineralogy studies in mines, further extension of those studies, and, subsequently, permission to exploit the mines. As of late November, Harutyunyan was in hiding from the prosecution.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires high-ranking public officials and their families to file annual asset declarations, which were partially available to the public on the internet. The law grants the Ethics Commission for High-Ranking Officials the powers and tools to partially verify the content of the declarations, including access to relevant databases and the mandate to impose administrative sanctions or refer a case to law enforcement authorities when elements of criminal offenses were identified. After the May 2018 change in government, the Ethics Commission imposed penalties on officials for filing incomplete or late declarations.

By law full verification of the data as well as other functions aimed at preventing corruption is carried out by the Commission on the Prevention of Corruption. The commission, an autonomous collegial body accountable to the parliament, is authorized to have five members who are appointed for a six-year term. It replaces the Ethics Commission for High-Ranking Officials and is broadly empowered to promote official integrity, support development of anticorruption policy, and conduct anticorruption awareness and training. On November 19, the National Assembly elected the five members of the Commission on the Prevention of Corruption by secret ballot; one member was nominated by the government, one by each of the three parliamentary factions, and one by the Supreme Judicial Council. A civil society leader nominated by an opposition party became the commission chairperson.

Under a law criminalizing illicit enrichment, many public officials, including judges and members of parliament and their spouses, disclosed large sums of unexplained income and assets, including large personal gifts and proceeds from providing loans. After the May 2018 change in government, authorities initiated several investigations of discrepancies or unexplained wealth identified in the declarations. On October 3, the government adopted an anticorruption strategy that, among other actions, envisages the creation of a separate special law enforcement body, to be called the Anti-Corruption Committee, by 2021.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Following the May 2018 change in government leadership, some civil society representatives joined the government. Others, however, continued to serve as watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of the government. Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Civil society organizations considered the government change a window of opportunity for closer collaboration. Government officials were often cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Defender (the ombudsperson) has a mandate to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms from abuse at all levels of government. The office improved its outreach to regions and collaboration with regional human rights protection organizations. During the year the office launched a public-awareness campaign on the procedures for reporting domestic violence. The office continued to report a significant increase in the number of citizen complaints and visits, which it attributed to increased public expectations and trust in the institution.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes applied to the prosecution of spousal rape. Domestic violence was prosecuted under general statutes dealing with violence and carried various sentences depending on the charge (murder, battery, light battery, rape, etc.). Law enforcement bodies did not effectively investigate or prosecute most allegations of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women was widespread. According to some officials, the absence of a definition of domestic violence in the criminal code hampered their ability to fight domestic violence. On October 10, the government approved a decision to create a centralized database for registering domestic violence cases.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in such cases and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to some NGO representatives, women alleging they had been raped were sometimes questioned concerning previous sexual experiences and subjected to a “virginity test.” In a few cases, if the rape victim was not a virgin, police dismissed the allegation. Most domestic violence cases were considered by law as offenses of low or medium seriousness, and the government did not hire enough female police officers and investigators for field work to address these crimes.

Following a June report published by the independent Hetq.am about a Czech woman who was sexually assaulted while in the country, independent journalist Lucy Kocharyan began posting anonymous stories of sexual violence survivors on Facebook that quickly went viral. The stories, sent to Kocharyan in private messages from real accounts, related cases of sexual harassment, rape, and molestation affecting men and women in both rural and urban settings, many of which had occurred when the victims were children. On July 6, police announced they could only look into reports that were specific and that they would need the victims to come forward to testify.

On May 9, police reported the death of Mariam Asatryan of Shahumyan village. According to the police report, Asatryan, who was pregnant at the time, was beaten to death with a rubber pipe and a wrench. The suspect detained for the killing, Hakob Ohanyan, was Asatryan’s partner; media outlets reported he had subjected Asatryan to violence for two years. She had sought assistance from the Women’s Support Center twice, initially after beatings causing a broken arm and many other injuries, and a second time after suffering two broken hands and additional injuries. She reported the crimes to police and was provided shelter. After Ohanyan reportedly intimidated her, however, she withdrew her complaints and law enforcement authorities dropped the case.

Activists and NGOs that promoted women’s rights and equality were frequent targets of hate speech and criticized for allegedly breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.” In one case women’s rights activist and Women’s Resource Center (WRC) chairperson Lara Aharonyan became the target of an online hate campaign after giving a March 8 speech at a civil society-parliament event on gender equality. On March 11, after she and her family received threats that they would be raped and killed, Aharonyan asked police to investigate the threats. Police launched an investigation but suspended it pending a response to an international request to identify the internet protocol addresses of the anonymous users who made the threats. In a second case, the staff of the WRC Sexual Assault Crisis Center (SACC) also faced threats during the time leading up to and after the May 4 presentation of a book, My Body is Private, aimed at educating parents and children against sexual abuse. Nationalists ambushed the book presentation and threw eggs at organizers. They later terrorized SACC staff by calling their hotline and threatening to kill, rape, and burn them, causing the SACC to temporarily halt its activities. Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan–the only female cabinet member–condemned the incident, and then became a target of gender-based hate speech herself. Police refused to launch a criminal case, claiming lack of elements of a crime.

In July 2018 the 2017 Law on Prevention of Family Violence, Protection of Persons Subjected to Family Violence, and the Restoration of Family Cohesion went into effect. According to NGOs, the government lacked resources for the full implementation of the law. On October 1, Aravot.am online and daily published the account of a domestic violence victim who described as life-saving police actions removing her from an abusive family and credited the 2017 law as the basis for police intervention.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behavior, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. Observers believed sexual harassment of women in the workplace and the political arena was widespread and was not adequately addressed by the government, which did not have a functioning, all-encompassing labor inspectorate or other avenues to report such harassment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Men and women enjoy equal legal status, but discrimination based on gender was a continuing problem in both the public and private sectors. There were reports of discrimination against women with respect to occupation and employment. Women remained underrepresented in leadership positions in all branches and at all levels of government.

Socioeconomic factors, women’s household responsibilities, as well as a lack of opportunities for women to gain leadership skills played a role in limiting women’s political participation, as did their lack of access to the informal, male-dominated communication networks that form the foundation of the country’s politics. Women also lacked the necessary sponsorships and funds to build a political career. Even when elected, the visibility of female politicians was limited in the public domain.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: Despite legislative changes banning such practices and related public-awareness campaigns, data on newborns continued to indicate a skewed sex ratio. According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the boy to girl ratio at birth was 112 to 100 in 2018. Women’s rights groups considered sex-selective practices as part of a broader problem of gender inequality in the country.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from one or both parents. A centralized system generated a medical certificate of birth to make avoidance of birth registration almost impossible. A low percentage of registered births occurred mainly in Yezidi and Kurdish communities practicing homebirths.

Education: Although education is free and compulsory through grade 12, in practice it was not universal. Children from disadvantaged families and communities and children with disabilities, lacked access to early learning programs, despite government efforts to raise preschool enrollment. According to the Statistical Committee, in 2018 nationwide gross preschool enrollment (of children up to age five) was 30.9 percent, including 36.6 percent in urban communities and 20.6 percent in rural communities. While there was some increase in rural enrollment, many remote rural communities, especially those with populations less than 400, did not have preschools. Enrollment and attendance rates for children from ethnic minority groups, in particular Yezidis, Kurds, and Molokans, were significantly lower than average, and dropout rates after the ninth grade were higher. UNICEF expressed concern regarding the integration into the local community of an increasing number of refugee children from Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine because of lack of proper support for addressing cultural and linguistic barriers.

A 2018 research project carried out by the NGO Bridge of Hope in collaboration with Enabling Education Network and OSF-Armenia’s Early Childhood Program identified difficulties in the transition of children with disabilities and special education needs through different educational levels as well as from home to schooling and from school to independent living. According to the researchers, “the transition of children with disabilities and special education needs to high school or to a vocational education setting is particularly challenging, especially in remote areas. Many high schools and vocational institutions reported being unable to offer options to children with disabilities and special education needs due to limited funding and a lack of specialists to advise and support the teachers and learners. This means children with disabilities and special education needs often end their education at ages 15 or 16, without having the possibility of obtaining specific skills for entering the labor market and thus living independently.”

In a March report on monitoring the water and sanitation situation in 121 schools and 80 preschools throughout the country, the Ombudsman’s Office raised concerns regarding poor sanitary conditions in many of the buildings and lack of accessible restrooms in most of them.

Child Abuse: According to observers, the government prioritized combatting violence against children and took steps to address it, despite insufficient official data on violence against children and gaps in legislation and practice. The Council of Justice for Children under the Ministry of Justice served as a multistakeholder platform to discuss and devise a multisectoral and coordinated national action plan for the next three to five years. The law on prevention of violence within the family covered child victims of domestic violence, envisaging cooperation between police and social services in response to cases of domestic violence. While police began implementing the law in June 2018 through the application of protection measures, services available to victims and perpetrators alike were insufficient and did not cover the entire territory of the country, making the social services’ response to domestic violence ineffective.

Along with other internal reforms, in September the Investigative Committee expanded the responsibilities of its department investigating human and drug trafficking cases to cover investigating human trafficking, child sexual assault, and drug trafficking crimes. In April the Investigative Committee began receiving reports from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on potential cyber violence against minors, based on data generated from Armenian internet addresses.

On March 4, the Ombudsman’s Office published the preliminary results of monitoring visits to eight special schools and one night-care institution, noting the office had registered children that had no legal basis for being in the institutions, violence between and toward children, labor exploitation, and other violations. The government’s deinstitutionalization program was designed to address this issue. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced a call to establish 30 day-care centers throughout the country to provide support to children who have returned to their families.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Early marriage of girls was reportedly more frequent within Yezidi communities, but the government took no measures to document the scale or address the practice.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children and provides for prison sentences of seven to 15 years for conviction of violations. Conviction of child pornography is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

According to NGOs, although official statistics showed relatively few cases of sexual exploitation and sale of children, there were numerous undetected and unreported cases caused by gaps in legislation, training, awareness raising, detection, and reporting.

Institutionalized Children: In 2017 the family code was amended to allow for more family-based alternatives for institutionalized children, such as diversification of foster care and improved provisions on adoption; the amendments entered into force in the middle of 2018, resulting in a quadrupling in state funding for foster care. Transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care also continued. Except for children with disabilities, the number of institutionalized children continued to decrease.

The government, with support from international organizations and other partners, decreased the number of children in residential care from 2,900 in January 2018 to 2,400 in December 2018. Most children returned to their biological or extended families, while smaller numbers were provided with alternative family and community-based options. The government continued support for the development of foster care services. In part due to a fourfold increase in funding for foster care in 2018, the number of foster families funded by the state–which had been stable for more than 10 years–increased from 25 to 45 (as of August).

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

On November 14, the NSS announced that it had uncovered an organized crime ring that dealt in illegal adoption, resulting in the sale of more than 30 children to foreigners. According to the press release, the suspects used blackmail, coercion, and fraud to force mothers in vulnerable social situations to carry pregnancies to term and to give up their newborns. In some cases mothers were told that the children were born with grave health problems or were stillborn. The group first transferred the children to orphanages and then falsified documents to permit adoptions by foreign families (local law prioritizes local adoption). The investigation continued at year’s end.

Observers estimated the country’s Jewish population at between 500 and 1,000 persons. As of early December, no anti-Semitic acts had been reported during the year, although some anti-Semitic comments appeared in social media, smearing government representatives and activists. The government did not condemn such anti-Semitic comments.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with any disability in employment, education, and access to health care and other state services, but discrimination remained a problem. The law and a special government decree require both new buildings and those that are renovated, including schools, to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Very few buildings or other facilities were accessible, even if newly constructed or renovated. Many public buildings, including schools and kindergartens, were inaccessible. This inaccessibility also deterred persons with disabilities from voting, since these buildings often served as polling stations during elections.

Although the law on general education provides for a transition from general education to inclusive education for children with disabilities by 2025, and despite the increasing trend towards inclusive education, practices on the ground continued to be fragmented and discriminatory and did not lead to an extensive and sustainable change of the education system and social norms. Many NGOs continued to report that schools lacked physical accessibility and accessible learning materials and made limited effort to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities in mainstream schools. The revised funding formula covered teaching assistants’ salaries but not reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities. Inclusive teacher education programs were largely donor funded, did not equip teachers to permanently change their practices, and were not incorporated into state teacher education policy. As a result in a majority of cases, children with disabilities were physically present in integrated classrooms but did not have the tools to participate fully in learning.

Persons with all types of disabilities continued to experience discrimination in every sphere, including access to health care, social and psychological rehabilitation, education, transportation, communication, employment, social protection, cultural events, and use of the internet. Lack of access to information and communications was a particularly significant problem for persons with sensory disabilities. Women with disabilities faced further discrimination, including in social acceptance and access to health and reproductive care, employment, and education, due to their gender.

Hospitals, residential care, and other facilities for persons with more significant disabilities remained substandard.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Since the 2018 political transition, the ministry has been in the process of internal restructuring to optimize the use of its resources to address the needs of persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups more effectively. While the process was not finalized as of mid-December, budget reallocations had already resulted in providing more resources for persons with disabilities. For example, on August 15, the ministry announced it was able to procure 1,253 pieces of additional equipment for persons with disabilities. During the year issues of physical accessibility became part of broader public debates, for example, the public discussion of the development of a new transportation system for the capital.

During the year the Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs and Health and the charitable NGO Bari Mama signed a memorandum of cooperation to prevent abandonment and institutionalization of children with disabilities and to provide for the right of a child to live in a family, with a view to strengthening the capacities of social service professionals (neonatologists, nurses, social workers, caregivers, etc.) and improving families’ abilities to care for children with disabilities at home. UNICEF supported the process through capacity development and awareness raising.

Antidiscrimination laws do not extend protections to LGBTI persons on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. There were no hate crime laws or other criminal judicial mechanisms to aid in the prosecution of crimes against members of the LGBTI community. Societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity negatively affected all aspects of life, including employment, housing, family relations, and access to education and health care. Anti-LGBTI sentiments and calls for violence escalated during periods of political activism. Many politicians and public figures, supporters of the former government in particular, used anti-LGBTI rhetoric, often positioning LGBTI persons as a “threat to national security.” Transgender persons were especially vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse and harassment.

Throughout November, after it became known that the government had cofunded a documentary regarding the life of transgender weightlifting champion Mel Daluzyan, the government and Daluzyan, who lived in the Netherlands, came under significant media attack. On November 13, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan condemned the hateful rhetoric against Daluzyan in an address to the National Assembly.

During the first half of the year, the human rights NGO PINK documented 24 cases of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as compared with 25 such cases reported throughout 2018. During the first half of the year, PINK also documented seven cases of violence and threats.

On November 2, former government supporters and traditional values advocates used anti-LGBTI slurs as they forcefully disrupted a street art performance in downtown Yerevan that they called feminist, satanic, and perverse (see section 6, Other Societal Violence or Discrimination).

In 2018 the NGO Right Side conducted the first survey on hate crimes against transgender persons, identifying 100 cases of hate-motivated violence in a 12-month period during 2016-17. Most incidents took place in public spaces, usually at night. Victims reported they were more likely to seek support from friends or LGBTI NGOs than from a victim support group or medical professionals. Only a small number of respondents said police were supportive. According to human rights groups, transgender women faced many barriers to accessing medical counseling and treatment, from lack of awareness to outright discrimination by medical personnel.

During April 5 public hearings before parliament on the UN Universal Periodic Review of the country’s human rights situation, Lilit Martirosyan, the chairperson of the NGO Right Side and an activist for transsexual persons, addressed hate crimes committed against transgender persons. In reaction, hearing organizer Naira Zohrabyan, a Prosperous Armenia (PA) Party member of parliament and head of the Standing Committee on Protection of Human Rights and Public Affairs, declared that the speech was out of line with the hearing agenda and asked Martirosyan to leave the hall. Zohrabyan, who later came under attack for allowing Martirosyan to “desecrate” parliament with her presence, declared that the speech was a provocation and that she considered it a great insult to parliamentarians. Other parliamentarians made similar and stronger homophobic remarks during the following days. For example, PA Party parliamentarian Vardan Ghukasyan stated such individuals should be burned, while another PA member of parliament, Gevorg Petrosyan, publicly committed to fighting “sexually deviant” persons. On social media, some users called for the physical extermination of LGBTI individuals, and there were small protests around the parliament building. After an individual posted Martirosyan’s home address on Facebook, protests around her building forced her to remain in hiding in her apartment for days. She applied for and received police protection and noted law enforcement bodies were very supportive.

The 2018 case against a transgender person on charges of hooliganism (punishable if convicted by up to seven years in prison) continued. The transgender person remained in pretrial detention for more than a year while her health deteriorated. On August 1, the trial court judge denied a motion to modify the detention. The criminal case filed against police for allegedly torturing the defendant during her arrest was dropped, citing the absence of a crime.

During the year PINK appealed a December 2018 court decision to drop the criminal case against the perpetrators of an attack by Shurnukh village residents on LGBTI activists in August 2018. In February the trial court of Syunik region granted the appeal, and on October 25, the prosecutor’s office sent the case for further investigation to the regional branch of the investigative committee.

Openly gay men are exempt from military service. An exemption, however, requires a medical finding based on a psychological examination indicating an individual has a mental disorder; this information appears in the individual’s personal identification documents and is an obstacle to employment and obtaining a driver’s license. Gay men who served in the army reportedly faced physical and psychological abuse as well as blackmail.

On March 25, Epress.am published the story of A.A., detailing his account of getting an exemption from military service due to his sexual orientation. The experience included a mandatory check in a psychiatric hospital that violated his confidentiality as well as physical violence at the final round of examination, when the examination committee head Henrik Muradyan verbally assaulted A.A. and hit him in the face while the 15-person committee verbally abused him. A.A. received a formal diagnosis of having a psychiatric illness. Observers noted that diagnosis codes used in these cases are codes for actual psychiatric diseases–such as schizophrenia or cerebral cortex damage–that, while relieving men from mandatory military service, also impose a number of legal limitations.

According to human rights groups, persons regarded as vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, such as sex workers (including transgender sex workers) and drug users, faced discrimination and violence from society as well as mistreatment by police. Such discrimination was especially noticeable when HIV-positive persons sought medical care. On August 14, the local NGO Real World, Real People reported the case of a clinic in the Shirak region that refused to register a pregnant woman who was HIV positive. According to a June 2018 UN Human Rights Council report by the rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, stigma and discrimination in health-care settings were major barriers to accessing treatment and services for persons living with HIV/AIDS. According to Real World, Real People, women living with HIV/AIDs faced double discrimination and were more at risk of becoming the subject of physical and psychological violence in their families.

On November 2, former government supporters and traditional values advocates disrupted a street art performance in downtown Yerevan aimed at challenging views of appropriate female behavior in public. The project was implemented with the support of the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport and had received permission from municipal authorities to use a public venue. The protesters disrupted both the dress rehearsal on November 1 and the performance the following day. They called the performance feminist, satanic, and perverse, used anti-LGBTI slurs, cut off the electricity to the show’s equipment, played loud traditional music, and pushed the dancers around. Police detained one of the protesters.

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