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. In December 9 snap parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan from the Civil Contract party, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament. According to the December 10 preliminary 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 and enjoyed broad public trust that should be preserved through further election reforms.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Nikol Pashinyan was initially elected by parliament on May 8 following largely peaceful nationwide protests throughout the country in April and May, called the “velvet revolution.” The new government launched a series of investigations to prosecute systemic government corruption, and the country held its first truly competitive elections on December 9.
Human rights issues included torture; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; police violence against journalists; physical interference by security forces with freedom of assembly; restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats thereof targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; inhuman and degrading treatment of persons with disabilities in institutions, including children; and worst forms of child labor.
The new government took steps to investigate and punish abuse, especially at high levels of government and law enforcement. On July 3, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) pressed charges against some former high-ranking officials in connection with their alleged roles in post-election clashes in 2008, when eight civilians and two police officers were killed.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. Before the “velvet revolution,” the government exerted economic pressure on media outlets for favorable and uncritical coverage. Broadcast and many large-circulation print media generally practiced self-censorship, expressing views sympathetic to their owners or advertisers–a mix of government officials and wealthy business people. Small-circulation print and online media outlets tended to be more critical.
There were several instances of violence against journalists in connection with their coverage of the protests leading to the “velvet revolution.” After the May change in government, the media environment became more free as some outlets began to step away from self-censorship; however, some still refrained from critical comments of the new government not to appear “counterrevolutionary.” Many traditional and online media continued to lack objective reporting that would not reflect the political, economic, and other sympathies of the given outlet.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals were free to criticize the government in private and online without fear of arrest. On June 18, however, Prime Minister Pashinyan posted on Facebook a comment denouncing as “antistate” propaganda carried by some television stations. While he did not mention any specific channels, according to some media watchdogs, the statement had a chilling effect on the media climate (see section 3).
Press and Media Freedom: Broadcast and larger-circulation print media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups 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, even after the “velvet revolution,” replacing one government perspective with the other.
Social media users freely expressed opinions about the new government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of fake social media accounts and attempts to manipulate the media, however, increased dramatically after the “velvet revolution.” According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” fake Facebook groups and fake stories, to attack the government. In one example, a video circulated on September 17 supposedly showing Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan calling himself “crazy” and “absolutely abnormal.” The Union of Informed Citizens media watchdog published a document alleging the video was fake because of several inconsistencies in the video.
The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited or no revenues from advertising.
The media advertising market did not change substantially after the “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 and controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating in a manner similar to MIS.
Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent.
The March 23 law governing the structure and activities of government envisions that government sessions would be held behind closed doors; this restriction, however, was removed soon after Nikol Pashinyan’s government took office. Along the same lines, the City of Yerevan attempted to restrict the access of media outlets to municipal hearings, but the move was widely criticized and never materialized.
Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of violence and professional intimidation against journalists during the April protests that led to the change in government. An estimated 22 reporters and camera operators were abused by police during April 13-23. While using cameras to film the protests and arrests, several reporters were assaulted by police officers. There were cases in which police damaged reporters’ equipment to prevent them from filming. Reporters also were injured by police using special means, such as stun grenades and nonlethal weapons. A number of media representatives reported being attacked by police in plain clothes. A total of 11 criminal cases were filed in connection with the incidents; charges were brought in five of the cases, and three cases ultimately ended up in court.
On April 14, a group of demonstrators led by then opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan broke into the Public Radio building, demanding coverage of their protest. The protesters broke one of the studio doors and seized key radio studios. The criminal charge of organizing mass disorders was later dropped.
In February, MediaLab.am founder and editor Marianna Grigoryan received death threats on social media after publishing a satirical cartoon mocking then defense minister Vigen Sargsyan. The user sending the threats was identified as a former defense serviceman. The international community and media watchdogs expressed concerns over these threats and demanded those responsible be held accountable. The Prosecutor General’s office initiated criminal proceedings on February 6 and forwarded the case to the investigative committee for an inquiry. At year’s end the investigation was ongoing.
Individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email. There were no disruptions to internet services during the nationwide April-May protests leading to the “velvet revolution,” with many media outlets providing live video coverage of the events and protest leaders and participants using the internet, social media platforms, and live broadcasting to address the population directly.
On April 11, the YouTube channels of Factor.am and Armlur.am were blocked for 24 hours. Several media outlets reported cyberattacks during the year from unknown sources.
The International Telecommunication Union estimated that 70 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. The country’s spring civic uprising changed the perception and practice of academic freedom in the country. Students joined together to protest against corrupt practices in universities. In February, a group of student activists formed the Yerevan State University (YSU) Restart group, which aimed to voice concerns and draw attention to corruption at universities. In April, YSU Restart activists joined the protests against then president Sargsyan becoming prime minister and called on students nationwide to boycott classes and join the campaign. As the protests grew, the management of some universities and public schools locked the doors to prevent students, teachers, and professors from leaving the facility to join the protests. Police used force against students to clear sit-ins and blocked streets. Many students were arrested and taken to police stations, but usually were released the same day. During the protests, there were no cases of university leadership expelling students from school or firing faculty members for missing classes (i.e. participating in protests). After the May change in government, YSU Restart organized protests against the rector of Yerevan State University without threats of repercussion.
The “velvet revolution” led to demands for education system leaders to resign. For example, the rector of Shirak State University was forced to resign due to protests against him for corruption and for firing faculty members who criticized him.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. In some instances, the government restricted those freedoms.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly and after the spring “velvet revolution,” the new government generally respected these rights.
A local NGO, the Armenian Helsinki Committee (AHC), examined the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, especially focusing on the protest period of April-May. The April rallies were unprecedented in terms of the number of participants as compared to rallies held in earlier years, with estimates of 100,000-150,000 protesters at some points. From April 13 to April 15, NGOs reported no instances of police interference with assemblies and marches, but the situation changed after April 16, when in response to Nikol Pashinyan’s call for a “decentralized struggle,” numerous citizens organized and held rallies and marches in various parts of Yerevan as well as in the regions.
AHC found many instances of disproportionate use of force, violence, and abuse of official powers by the police at assemblies from April 16 to April 23. For example, on April 16 and on April 22, members of an unknown police unit threw 11 flash grenades into the crowds without proper warning. As a result, 40 citizens and six police officers sought medical assistance. Reporters from 168?am and Factor.am news websites also sustained injuries.
According to the police report, from April 16 to April 26, 1,283 persons were forcibly brought to police departments, including 1,144 in Yerevan, 918 of whom were also subjected to administrative detention. The majority of the demonstrators were held in administrative detention for no more than three hours, in accordance with the law, although some detainees reported being held longer. Some were brought to police departments but were not allowed to make a phone call. Lawyers who cooperated in a hotline organized by human rights defenders reported in many cases officers prevented them from meeting with their clients. In some cases, obstacles for lawyers to enter police departments were removed after intervention from the ombudsman’s office.
There were incidents of violence by masked assailants. On April 22, for example, more than 50 individuals on Erebuni Street attacked protesters with electroshock weapons, truncheons, and stones and verbally abused them. Many of the attackers wore masks that covered their faces. More than 20 police officers were present when the incident occurred, but did not interfere to stop the assaults. A reporter, a cameraman from Shant TV, and a cameraman from Factor TV were hurt during the incident.
The SIS opened investigations into more than 50 criminal cases of police abuse of power accompanied by violence during the assemblies held from April 13 to May 8. Later, those cases were merged into a single criminal case and an investigative group was established. More than 60 episodes of violence were under investigation within the framework of that criminal case, with reporters, lawyers, and numerous citizens recognized as aggrieved parties.
In November the UN special rapporteur on peaceful assembly and association noted, “Armenia has come a long way with recent reforms and the adoption of new laws that regulate the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; however authorities need to ensure the consistent enforcement of the current regulations.”
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. Under the Law on Public Organizations, in force since February 2017, some NGOs have legal standing to act on behalf of their beneficiaries limited to environmental issues in court. The limitations contradict a 2010 Constitutional Court decision that allowed all NGOs to have legal standing in court.
On October 29, the Ministry of Justice proposed draft amendments to the Law on Public Organizations that generated intense public debate. For example, on November 16, the Transparency International Anticorruption Center (TIAC) released a statement expressing concerns the draft amendments would introduce problematic changes to the reporting requirements for civil society organizations. The draft proposed to toughen the reporting for civil society organizations by extending reporting requirements to all organizations regardless of their sources of funding. In addition, the amendments would require personal information of the donors as well as members, governing bodies, staff and volunteers who have received funding. According to TIAC, the draft would put an unreasonable and disproportionate burden on public organizations.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Authorities cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: While there was no systematic discrimination reported against migrants, refugees, or stateless persons, there were reports of 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.
During the year, 28 foreigners were apprehended for illegal entry after crossing the border via land or air or arriving at the International Airport in Yerevan, an increase from four in 2017. Unlike the previous practice, when authorities detained and sentenced asylum seekers for illegal entry into the country after registering their asylum applications, in a few cases asylum seekers were released from detention. 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. Two asylum seekers from Afghanistan, who were detained for illegal border crossing in 2015 and sentenced to three years in prison, were released early and accommodated at a reception center for asylum seekers in mid-September. They were under supervision with mandatory reporting requirements between mid-September and October 6, when the sentence expired.
Foreign Travel: Citizens must obtain exit visas to leave the country on either a temporary or a permanent basis. Citizens could routinely purchase exit visas for temporary travel outside the country within one day of application for approximately 1,000 drams (two dollars) for each year of validity.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
As of 2016, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 IDPs of the estimated 65,000 households evacuated in 1988-94 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and former refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
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 takes into account specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. Refugees who were not ethnic Armenians needed three years of legal residence in the country to be naturalized.
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. Security considerations permeated all aspects of the asylum procedure and implementation of refugee policies and the NSS continued to influence asylum decision making by the State Migration Service (SMS).
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 SMS decisions on asylum applications. For the first time since 2009, the Administrative Court issued a judgment overruling an SMS denial of refugee status to a family from Iraq and obliging the SMS to recognize the applicants as refugees. In general, the courts drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically.
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.
Access to Basic Services: Conditions in the only reception center for asylum seekers were below international standards, according to one international NGO, and did not address the needs of persons with specific needs and disabilities. With an increased number of asylum seekers during the year, many from Iran and Afghanistan, the reception center’s capacity was exhausted and there was no alternative solution for accommodation of persons with specific needs and large families. Additionally, the center allegedly did not provide clean lodging, adequate sanitary facilities, or sufficient food and medicine, leading to the prevalence of illness and communicable disease. Many refugees were also unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system.
Housing allocated to refugees was often in limited supply and in poor condition and remained, along with employment, their 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 with Syrian-Armenian refugees who spoke a different dialect created barriers to employment and, initially, education.
Durable Solutions: In 2016 the government adopted a concept document outlining its goals concerning the integration of persons granted asylum and refugee status as well as of long-term migrants. According to UNHCR, while in principle the concept would enhance the legal framework for the protection of refugees, it did not go far enough to cover Syrians who had obtained citizenship, thus excluding from the provision of services the majority of displaced Syrians who had arrived in country since the beginning of the conflict. The concept also did not address critical aspects of integration, such as language needs and access to education. The Ministry of Diaspora drafted an integration strategy focused on Syrian-Armenians displaced as a result of the conflict in Syria. UNHCR promoted and advocated for a single policy and comprehensive integration strategy to facilitate integration of all refugees and other displaced persons without discrimination. While the government approved an initial concept on local integration, full implementation remained pending. NGOs partially filled the gap with UNHCR and international donor funding.
According to police data, the number of stateless persons by October 29 was 801. 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 December 2017.
The law provides for the provision of nationality to stateless children born on the country’s territory.