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Bill Outlawing Domestic Abuse Stirs Debate In Armenia


According to one NGO, at least 50 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence in Armenia over the past five years. (illustrative file photo)

Bruises have covered much of her body, attesting to the abuse she has suffered at the hands of her husband over two decades. Even while carrying his child, he continued to beat her.

"I was pregnant when he once kicked me and I fell from my bed," says the 43-year-old from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, adding that she now suffers from chronic health problems.

Requesting anonymity for fear of being targeted by more violence, she says she has nowhere to turn.

Family members discourage her from divorcing, fearing it would bring shame on them in Armenia, where traditional, conservative values hold sway in this mainly Christian country.

"I was probably not very strong," she says, "But the main factor was my parents' honor."

Plus, she adds, she wouldn't be able to afford to raise her three children alone if she left her husband.

The case is far from an anomaly in this Caucasus nation of nearly 3 million.

The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, a grouping bringing together local NGOs, says 5,000 women called their special hotline this year complaining of spousal abuse.

Other victims may have never gotten the chance.

Dire Statistics

According to the Armenian NGO, at least four women have died at the hands of their partners or family members in the first six months of 2017 alone. Overall, it says, at least 50 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence in Armenia over the last five years.

Despite the dire statistics, Armenia has no law criminalizing domestic violence. It is also just one of only two Council of Europe member states that has failed to join the Istanbul Convention on Prevention and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

However, the National Assembly, Armenia's national parliament, appears set to finally overcome obstacles to a bill that would criminalize domestic abuse and protect its victims.

"This law is essential, and a shame that it hasn't been passed [already], despite repeated promises and lots of advocacy from local groups, and [that] victims of domestic violence continue to suffer unprotected from the state," says Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus director of Human Rights Watch.

However, critics say the proposed legislation would be an unnecessary intrusion by the state on the rights of the family. They also contend it is being pushed by "foreign governments" and lacks public backing inside Armenia.

A leading NGO in Armenia suspects such groups are receiving support from the Kremlin, which is wary of Armenia, a close ally, steering from Moscow's orbit and closer to the West.

The Kremlin conducted a similar "smear campaign" in 2012 when Armenia's parliament pushed to pass a gender-equality bill, according to one analyst.

'Nonexistent Conspiracy'

Justice Minister Davit Harutiunian, who penned the proposed legislation, denies Yerevan has come under foreign pressure to pass the bill, saying the government views the issue of domestic abuse as a top priority.

Harutiunian says some opponents wrongly believe the legislation will make it easier for the government to take children away from their parents.

"The thing that is clear from what critics have said is that they either don't understand the legislation or haven't read it," claims Harutiunian.

The passion the bill has stirred was evident during a public debate in Yerevan on October 9.

Representatives of several obscure groups claimed the West, and the European Union in particular, were forcing Armenia to pass the legislation in order to weaken the rights of families.

One of them, Hayk Nahapetian, questioned official statistics on domestic-abuse fatalities, claiming the problem is grossly exaggerated by pro-Western civic groups.

A high-ranking clergyman of the Armenian Apostolic Church, part of the Orthodox community, disagreed.

"Even if there is some foreign intervention or a desire to please some foreign forces...why should we see a nonexistent conspiracy?" said Mikael Ajapahian. "I personally don't see any conspiracy."

"If I have a normal family, if I am a loving father, a loving husband, or a loving son, if I love and am loved, which article of this law on prevention of domestic violence could harm me?" the archbishop went on. "So do not create imaginary monsters, do not fight against imaginary monsters, and be tolerant toward each other."

Hasmik Khachatrian, a young woman who was abused by her husband for almost a decade, also made a case for the bill's passage during the discussion. She said it would protect victims of domestic violence and spare them "the kind of obstacles that I have encountered."

Echoing statements by law enforcement officials, Deputy Justice Minister Vigen Kocharian told parliament on October 17 that Armenia's existing criminal and family codes do not sufficiently empower relevant authorities to tackle the problem.

"About 47 percent of cases of sexual abuse of minors take place in family settings," the official said. "Some people may not be concerned about this problem, but we are concerned."

Vague Wording?

Some critics have pointed to what they consider vague wording in the legislation, which defines four types of domestic abuse: physical, sexual, psychological, and economic.

Some lawmakers on October 17 pressed Kocharian to clarify what that means, sparking heated exchanges.

One leading Armenian NGO has claimed that some, if not most, of the groups opposed to the bill appear to have connections to the Kremlin.

The Union of Informed Citizens said late last year that their research uncovered that the main organizations, political parties, and movements opposed to the legislation -- including the Pan-Armenian Parental Committee, Stop G7, the Yerevan Geopolitical Club, For Restoration of Sovereignty, and Sputnik Armenia -- either were pro-Russian in orientation or even deeply dependent on Russian funding.

According to the Union of Informed Citizens, two of the most vocal critics of the proposed law are Arman Boshian and Hayk Ayvazian.

Boshian leads the Pan-American Parental Committee, which has informal links to the All-Russian Parents' Resistance movement founded by Sergei Kurghinian, an ethnic Armenian living in Russia. Kurghinian has been a big supporter of the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, according to the NGO.

Boshian is also reportedly active with the group Stop G7, which, according to Union of Informed Citizens, has railed against the domestic-violence legislation on social media, mainly Facebook.

Also connected to Stop G7, according to the Armenian NGO, is Ayvazian, who has peddled the canard that Washington has been manufacturing biological weapons in U.S.-funded laboratories in Armenia. The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan has refuted that claim.

At least one observer sees parallels with the campaign that the Kremlin allegedly coordinated in 2012 when Armenia tried to pass gender-equality legislation. Social media then became the tool for Moscow's "smear campaign," according to Maro Matosian.

"Identical video clips and articles -- all in the Russian language -- appeared in Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, and other states that sought to align themselves with European standards," Matosian wrote in an op-ed for the U.S.-based Asbarez newspaper. "The well-organized campaign had individuals paid by Russian organizations spread misinformation and lies among the population as a scare tactic."

The gender bill was eventually approved by parliament in May 2013. A vote in parliament on the domestic-abuse legislation is expected soon.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service
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