Mr. Artur Davtyan
The Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Armenia
5 Vazgen Sargsyan Street, 0010 Yerevan
Republic of Armenia
RE: Criminal Investigation Against a Human Rights Activist
Dear Mr. Davtyan,
Please accept my regards on behalf of Human Rights Watch.
We appreciate the constructive dialogue we have with the Armenian authorities, including your office, and are grateful for the meeting my colleague Tanya Lokshina had with your office in November while researching international humanitarian law violations during the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the spirit of that cooperation, we are writing to express profound concern regarding a criminal investigation against a human rights activist, Sashik Sultanyan. We urge you to drop the criminal charges against Mr. Sultanyan and to assure us that there is and will be no undue interference in his legitimate human rights work.
As you might be aware, on October 3, 2020, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) initiated a criminal investigation, case No. 58228020, for inciting national, racial, or religious hatred (Criminal Code Article 226, part 2, point 1). The case stems from an interview Sultanyan gave to the website Yezidinews.com in May 2020, published in June, in which he spoke about a variety of problems he believes the local Yezidi community face in Armenia.
Sultanyan is the chairperson of a non-governmental group, “Yezidi Center for Human Rights,” which since 2018 has worked on community mobilization, awareness raising, and anti-corruption issues. We have read the Armenian translation of the Yezidinews article provided by Sultanyan. We firmly believe Sultanyan’s interview falls within the boundaries of legitimate speech protected under international law and in particular article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As such it should not be the basis for a criminal investigation and in doing so Armenia is violating Sultanyan’s rights and its own international legal obligations.
On May 20, 2021 the investigator brought charges against Sultanyan. Human Rights Watch has reviewed the decision to file criminal charges. In the charge sheet, the investigator states that Sultanyan’s interview constituted actions aimed at inciting national enmity among the Yezidis, who are a national and ethnic minority in Armenia. The investigator cites several statements as grounds for the charges.
The investigator justified the charges by referring to several of Sultanyan’s statements in the interview, including those that alleged that Yezidis endure discrimination in Armenia, that they cannot study their language, and cannot develop their culture. Other statements allege theft of Yezidi property by Armenians and that Yezidis are underrepresented in local government structure.
Thus, according to the investigator, Sultanyan presented Republic of Armenia to Foreign News Service as a state discriminating nationally in political, economic, social, cultural and other spheres of public life, allegedly leading to Armenia violating the rights and freedoms of Yezidis due to their ethnicity, and violating the right of the Yezidis to profess their religion publicly or privately.
On May 19, the authorities searched Sultanyan’s house, car and office. They seized, among other things, his phone, which had been wiretapped.
This case raises concerns beyond its mischaracterization of legitimate speech as incitement. The investigation noted concerns over questionnaires, which according to Sultanyan aimed at documenting the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the Yezidi community. It is entirely unclear why the questionnaires, which are a standard tool of social research, including human rights research, would be of interest in a criminal investigation, except to intimidate human rights researchers.
The investigator also speculated, groundlessly, about the possibility that Sultanyan might be cooperating with foreign intelligence services and spreading “obviously false and dangerous information.”
There are procedural concerns as well.
On October 1, the NSS called Sultanyan to a meeting and instructed him to provide an explanatory note about the June 2020 interview. He explained that his views expressed in the interview intended to expose human rights problems faced by the Yezidi community in Armenia and did not intend to incite any ethnic hatred. The investigator formally launched a criminal investigation 2 days later. However, in December, 2 months after the investigation was launched, Sultanyan had still not been provided with details about it, including, at the time, the date when it was launched. In a response dated November 21 to an official request for information, the NSS confirmed to Sultanyan that there was a criminal investigation underway but did not provide further information or a copy of the decision to launch the investigation. The NSS informed Sultanyan that he had no procedural status, i.e. that he had not been recognized a suspect or defendant in the investigation; thus he did not have any procedural rights in this matter. This meant that at the time, he had no legal basis for demanding access to further information about the case. The claim that as of December he was not even a suspect, given the timing, nature and direction of the investigation, lacks credibility. Moreover, it is not clear when between December and May 20, that Sultanyan’s status changed.
The investigation appears to have been launched based on a complaint filed by Narek Malyan, a leader of the Veto Movement, a radical group that has built a reputation for aggressive hostility against human rights defenders. Malyan filed a statement with the NSS in September 2020, calling on the authorities to investigate Sultanyan and the Open Society Foundation-Armenia (OSF-Armenia) as a donor supporting the Yezidi Center for Human Rights.
It appears that in 2019, OSF-Armenia gave a $10,000 grant to the organization to hold human rights education sessions for Yezidi youth, to raise awareness and collect information on possible discrimination and other human rights violations. In 2020, the group received an additional $17,650 to provide Covid-19 relief food packages and hygiene supplies, as well as to monitor Yezidi minorities’ access to healthcare and advocate for their rights with local and national authorities.
The questionable motive and actions of the investigator also raise concerns that Sultanyan’s rights to fair process in criminal processes and to an effective remedy (as protected under articles 6 and 13 of the ECHR respectively) are being violated by the proceedings commenced.
Fighting national and ethnic hatred is the key priority for any government, but it is not achieved through criminalizing or otherwise violating the rights of those who speak out on matters of sensitivity. Although it is fair to disagree with the statements Sultanyan made in his interview, or to challenge their accuracy, subjecting them to criminal investigation violates Armenia’s obligations to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression. We urge you to immediately drop the charges against Sultanyan, close the investigation, and ensure that state bodies do not impinge on legitimate speech and human rights work in Armenia.
Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.
Europe and Central Asia Director
Human Rights Watch