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Armenia: A Blurry Line in Yerevan Between Hate Crime and Defense of “National Interests”

Protected by police, about 20 to 30 people join the Yerevan march organized by Women’s Resource Center. (Photo: Anahit Hayrapetyan)

Reactions to a recent arson attack on a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan are raising concerns among civil liberties advocates that Armenia’s political establishment is indirectly encouraging intolerance and violence toward lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

The DIY (Do It Yourself) Rock Pub, a hangout owned by Armenian punk rocker Tsomak (a play on the Armenian word for “mosquito”), went up in flames in the early morning of May 8, when three young men smashed a bar window and tossed a Molotov cocktail inside. Two of the three, brothers identified only by their first names (Arameh, 20, and Hambik, 19), were detained on charges of premeditated arson. The third suspect has not yet been apprehended.

The pair in custody, reportedly the grandsons of an Iranian diaspora member of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun party, was released after ARF parliamentarians Artsvik Minasian and Hrayr Karapetian came up with 1 million drams ($2,530) for bail.

The accused face a fine of 50,000-100,000 drams ($125 - $253) in addition to compensation for the damage, or a prison term ranging from two months to two years. A trial date has not been set.

Rights activists say the maximum potential punishment is too mild for what they see as a hate crime against a sexual minority, an act not covered under Armenia’s criminal code. Amnesty International condemned the government’s response to the attack as “utterly shocking” and a violation of Armenia’s commitments “under international law.”

In remarks to reporters, Minasian asserted that the young men “acted in accordance with our society’s values and national ideology, and in an appropriate manner.” “It was wrong to cause material damage, of course, and it will be compensated, but I have repeatedly said that Tsomak and her ilk are destructive for our society,” he added.

A majority of Armenians most likely agree. A 2011 survey by the Public Information and Need for Knowledge (PINK) organization, a human rights group working primarily on LGBT and other minority issues, in Yerevan, along with the regional towns of Gyumri and Vanadzor, found that 72 percent of the 1,189 respondents believe that the state should take measures to “fight against homosexuals.”

Many Facebook users in Armenia have turned the three alleged arsonists into heroes, calling the trio’s actions “the only true way of fighting against homosexuals.” Some users of the social network have also posted photos of Armine Oganezova -- the real name of Tsomak, the DIY club’s owner.

Perhaps the show of popular support on Facebook explains why senior members of the governing Republican Party of Armenia have sided with the alleged arsonists. MP Eduard Sharmazanov, the party’s longtime spokesperson, called the attack “completely right and justified,” and claimed that those who support the rights of LGBT Armenians “are perverting our society, are defaming the Armenian national identity.” He dismissed human rights activists as “trying to earn cheap dividends” from the attack, the gay-rights blog Unzipped reported.

Lara Aharonian, the director of Yerevan’s Women’s Resource Center, which addresses women’s rights issues, warns that such declarations might have a destructive backlash.

“The indifference and silence of society and state bodies [toward displays of hatred against LGBT Armenians] is giving a green light to such groups and it’s extremely dangerous,” Aharonian charged. “They think they can do whatever they want and get away with it unpunished.”

PINK project coordinator Marine Margarian noted that the attack on DIY was not the first in Yerevan. “Other clubs and pubs that are open to people of other nationalities and representatives of different cultures have been subjected to minor attacks such as breaking bottles, throwing eggs at the doors,” Margarian said.

For the past several years, one nationalist organization, Meg Azg (One Nation), has posted posters on apartment buildings and bus stops in Yerevan urging Armenians to “fight against homosexuals,” warning that “homosexuals are leading our country to destruction.” In 2011, PINK petitioned the Ministry of Justice to remove the posters; ministry representatives responded that the posters are an expression of freedom of speech, Margarian said. “This means that such fascist, fanatical and nationalistic extremist propaganda is acceptable on an institutional level,” she alleged. The ministry has responded that it can take no action against the posters since, it claims, they do not violate the law.

PINK and the Women’s Resource Center co-sponsored what was billed as a Diversity March on May 21 in Yerevan. The marchers were met by roughly 100 counter-demonstrators, some carrying placards with slogans like “Send Gays to Baku” and “Armenia without Gays.” At one point, counter-demonstrators attempted to disrupt the march and scuffling broke out. Some marchers suffered minor injuries before police intervened.

Oganezova, the DIY club owner, claims that since the May 8 attack various groups of youngsters have warned her that such a bar will never reopen in Yerevan. Since the bar’s opening a year ago, the suspects themselves, whom she believes to be members of a small underground nationalist group (seen on Facebook wearing t-shirts bearing the name “The Black Ravens of Armenia” and “The Dark Forces of Armenia”), frequently pestered her, she recounted.

After Oganezova’s band, the all-female punk rock group Pincet, staged a concert in Istanbul and took part in a gay pride parade there, “they [the young nationalists] took it as high treason against our country and decided to punish me for it,” she claimed.

“They would show up periodically and spit on the door, make fascist remarks, say that we have no right to live, that we are perverting the nation,” Oganezova said in reference to the suspects.

Because ARF-Dashnak representatives provided bail money for the accused, the political party has come under suspicion of having some sort of political connection to the incident. ARF members, however, have denied any active involvement with the Black Ravens, or any other such ultra-nationalist splinter group. “Dashnaktsutiun has no underground groupings. If and when we have things to say or do, we do that explicitly, without hiding behind anything,” declared Vahan Hovhannisian, a former presidential candidate and parliamentary speaker.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Central Committee in the United States has condemned the violence, calling the attack’s “root impetus of homophobia and intolerance” to be “reprehensible.” Meanwhile, the US-born leader of the tiny opposition Heritage Party, Raffi Hovhannissian, who attended a May 11 concert to raise money for rebuilding the DIY bar, also asserted that “such things cannot be done for the national interest.”

The mother of the two young men detained in the attack has similarly condemned the violence. “Their regretful act brought no honor to us,” she said, giving her name only as Ani. “We are really sorry.”

Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.

Armenia: A Blurry Line in Yerevan Between Hate Crime and Defense of “National Interests”

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