Armenia criminalises public calls to violence

On 15 April 2020, the Armenian parliament adopted amendments to Criminal Code, which criminalize public calls to and public justification of violence. According to the amendments, publicly calling to apply violence threatening anyone’s life or health, publicly justifying or inciting such violence will be subject to penalties from fines up to imprisonment.

The issue of hate speech has been on the agenda of the government and civil society for several years, raised by a number of CSOs working in the area of human rights and protection of minorities. This issue was also highlighted in the recent CSO Meter Report as one of the factors hindering CSO enabling environment in Armenia in the context of freedom of expression and state duty to protect. Organisations protecting rights of LGBT people, women and religious minorities are especially vulnerable in this regard.

The Ministry of Justice developed draft amendments to the Criminal Code and posted at the online platform for public discussion in August 2019. CSOs provided a number of suggestions during this consultation, including a proposal to specify a list of protected characteristics, which was generally accepted. Unlike the previous version of the draft, the current amendments specify certain characteristics which might be basis for violent treatment such as sex, race, skin color, ethnicity, social origin, genetic characteristics, language, religion, mindset, political or other views, national minority, economic status, birth status, disability, age or other personal or social characteristics. However, the suggestion to include sexual orientation and gender identity, proposed by CSOs working in the area of protecting the rights of sexual minorities, were not incorporated. On the other hand, the non-exclusive list of characteristics (the words “other personal or social circumstances”) might be problematic in terms of lack of legal certainty.

The updated amendment was adopted without any consultation with CSOs. Though a special working group on hate speech reforms with participation of CSO representatives was established in the parliament in December 2019, until now it has not once been convened to discuss the current amendment or any other measures to tackle hate speech. The state of emergency entered in March due to COVID-19 pandemic might have also served as a factor that prevented further discussions with CSOs before the adoption of the final draft.

Experts still assess the adopted amendments as positive compared to the previous versions, because they specify protected characteristics and provide less strict sanctions. The previous draft included penalties up to 1000 minimal salaries and 6 years of imprisonment, while the penalties defined in the adopted amendments include a fine in the amount of 50 to 150 minimal salaries or detention of up to 2 months or imprisonment for up to 1 year, with more severe punishment in case the misconduct was committed by a group of persons with prior consent or by an official.

The Criminal Code amendments will enter into force on May 16, 2020.