The case against Sashik Sultanyan is based on bogus charges of ‘inciting ethnic hatred’. If the Yazidi human rights defender is convicted, it could have a chilling effect on the work of all rights defenders in Armenia.
Public engagement is a key tool human rights defenders everywhere use to try to influence governments to be more rights-friendly. Sometimes it is the only tool we have. This also means publicly criticising the authorities, and in a democracy, the officials are required to tolerate it.
But little did Sashik Sultanyan, a human rights defender in Armenia, know that a conversation he had two years ago with a journalist criticising the authorities for their rights record, would become the basis of a criminal prosecution against him.
The stakes are high in Sultanyan’s trial, which I’ve been observing since hearings started in November. Sultanyan has led a group working to protect the country’s Yazidi minority community, of which he is a member. He’s been under investigation since October 2020 on charges of inciting ethnic hatred, based on an article published in June 2020 that quoted him criticising alleged discrimination faced by Armenia’s Yazidi community.
If convicted, he could face up to six years in prison.
But the damage would be even higher for Armenia’s democracy, as Sultanyan’s conviction would be likely to have a chilling effect on free speech and possibly on human rights activism throughout the country.
The article quoted Sultanyan alleging that Yazidis in Armenia cannot study their language or develop their culture and that they are underrepresented in local government. He also said that Armenians had seized Yazidi property, that authorities do not protect their rights, and that Yazidis live ‘in fear’.
These views fall completely within the boundaries of legitimate speech protected under international law.
Regardless of whether Sultanyan’s discrimination claims are accurate, the opinion he expressed in 2020 was legitimate speech. Meanwhile, the fact that the prosecutor dismissed out of hand the notion that there is any ethnic discrimination against Yazidis in Armenia does not inspire confidence that state officials diligently investigate discriminatory practices.
The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Narek Malyan, the leader of the VETO Movement, a radical right-wing group that has built a reputation for aggressive hostility against human rights defenders and the Open Society Foundations in Armenia in particular. The latter antagonism appears to be linked to intense hostility among far-right groups around the world against the supposedly nefarious actions of Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, who founded the Open Society Foundations (OSF).
The evidence that I heard the prosecutor present at the trial leaves little doubt that the incitement charges are a flimsy cover for an ulterior motive behind the prosecution, where the apparent aim of the complaint was to discredit rights defenders and in particular those that get funding from the OSF. The prosecution, it seems, is indulging this approach.
For example, the prosecutor played a recording from a 2020 news conference held by Narek Malyan, jointly with an ethnic Yazidi, who said that Sultanyan believed all was fine for Yazidis in Armenians until he received funding from the Open Society Foundations - Armenia in 2019. Yet in fact, Sultanyan has been advocating for Yazidi rights in and beyond Armenia since 2013, and in 2018 founded the Yezidi Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental group.
During the trial, the prosecutor implied that national minorities, especially Yazidis, do not face discrimination in Armenia and that Sultanyan was biased and sought to hoodwink Yazidis into believing otherwise. As evidence, he played for the court phone conversations between Sultanyan and his colleagues and friends. In one, Sutanyan talks about a village where Yazidis live relatively prosperously; in another, a colleague says that there are some Yazidis who criticise Sultanyan’s work. The prosecutor also used a public speech Sultanyan made about Yazidi rights in Armenia at an international human rights forum in September 2019.
Among the other evidence that the prosecutor presented was a piece of paper the investigation found in Sultanyan's documents, which had the word ‘discrimination’ circled and listed examples of possible discrimination against Yazidis. It is hard to know what this piece of evidence was supposed to prove.
The fact is that Armenia has been struggling to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law for almost a decade. Although discrimination is banned under Armenia’s Constitution, there is no legislation that defines equality standards, ensures safeguards against discrimination in education, and provides for awareness-raising, adequate protection, monitoring, and procedural safeguards for people at risk of discrimination.
While the momentum for comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation was renewed in 2019, the process has stalled again. The pending anti-discrimination bill package includes both the anti-discrimination law and a Law on National Minorities, to ensure the rights of national and ethnic minorities in Armenia.
‘I wanted to fight discrimination, and I thought the state would back me on this’, Sultanyan told me before the hearing. ‘Who thought it would turn into this?’
It’s not too late for the authorities to withdraw the bogus charges against Sultanyan. Instead of wasting resources on this case, they should act to protect lawful speech and protect people from discrimination. A good place to start would be speeding up the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, with adequate, effective protection for everyone.