Nine LGBT activists and their friends were attacked in a village in southern Armenia by a group of 30 men, reported Pink Armenia, a Yerevan-based NGO. Two were hospitalized with serious injuries as a result of the August 3 assault, which the activists said was the worst attack on LGBT Armenians in memory.
The attack posed a challenge for the new authorities, which was brought into power by a wave of liberal activists but still has to maintain the support of the country's socially conservative majority. As of three days after the attack took place, no senior official had addressed the issue.
"We expected some kind of statement or condemnation from the government but there has been nothing so far," Mamikon Hovsepyan, the executive director of Pink Armenia, told Eurasianet. "The government is downplaying LGBT issues for the present in order to concentrate on Electoral Code reform and cracking down on corruption so they are unlikely to be particularly vocal on such issues for the time being.”
According to Pink Armenia, the activists in the village of Shurnukh had faced sustained harassment in recent months. Two of the nine attacked were assaulted in the neighboring town of Goris on April 21. One was punched in the nose, with the attacker warning him to stay away from people of the same gender. According to the activists, the incident was reported to local police but nothing came of it.
On August 2, Hayk Hakobyan, an LGBT activist and founder of the Rainbow Armenia Initiative, invited friends to his house in Shurnukh. After people had gathered, some villagers began throwing stones at his house and screaming homophobic slurs, Hakobyan reported. One of the attackers was Hakob Arshakyan, the former mayor of the village, Hakobyan said. “My dad recently filed a complaint for corruption against our former mayor. I think this might have been the direct motive for the attack,” he told the LGBT-rights outlet Gay Star News.
The following day, on August 3, several villagers demanded the activist come outside “to talk.”
“We told the man there was nothing to talk about,” Elvira Meliksetyan, one of the activists, told the news site epress.am. “He then broke into the house and began to swear at us.”
A crowd gathered around the house and the people inside tried to leave. Members of the crowd reportedly began punching and kicking the activists, shouting “gays don’t belong here” and “you are Turks” – an derogatory term among Armenians.
The activists ran down the main highway through Shurnukh as villagers continued to pelt them with rocks. They tried to flag down drivers to give them rides out of the village, but attackers on the other side of the road shouted at drivers telling them “don’t stop, these are gays,” the activists reported.
After more than an hour, police arrived to the scene. They stopped a passing bus and asked the driver to take the victims to Goris.
Six of the activists sustained minor injuries in the attack while two of the group had more serious wounds requiring immediate medical treatment. Pink Armenia noted that two of its own staff and one of its board members were among those attacked.
On August 4, Goris Police Department issued a statement noting that an investigation has been launched and that a number of people had been detained.
The activists said local authorities sympathized with the attackers. Meliksetyan posted a photo on Facebook of Shurnukh’s mayor “talking warmly with the main actor involved in the attacks on us” at the Goris police station.
The attitudes of the national authorities are unclear, and the attacks could pose a dilemma for them. During the April protests that brought Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power, LGBT activists played an active role but kept their participation low-profile to avoid offending the country's largely socially conservative population.
“Since the revolution, a lot of social movements are positive about the future in Armenia, but this is not the same for the LGBT community,” Remy Bonny, a political scientist and LGBT activist, told Gay Star News.
“The anti-discrimination legislation which excludes LGBT people is still not off the table and nobody knows what’s going to happen with it. It is important that the EU and Western embassies put pressure on the Armenian government to include the LGBT community in this legislation. Because if they are not explicitly in the law, they will be outlawed,” Bonny said.
The United States embassy issued a statement condemning the attack and saying that "the state is responsible for all Armenians’ safety and security."
The U.S. Embassy condemns all hate crimes, including the violent August 3 attack against nine young LGBTI Armenians. The state is responsible for all Armenians’ safety and security.
— US Embassy, Armenia (@usembarmenia) August 6, 2018
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.