International Groups Stand in Solidarity With Armenian Environmental and Human Rights Defenders Facing Defamation and Criminalization

International Groups Stand in Solidarity With Armenian Environmental and Human Rights Defenders Facing Defamation and Criminalization

In recent months, Armenian human rights and environmental defenders and their organizations have been facing defamatory attacks in local media and they are increasingly being targeted (through defamation, smear campaigns, intimidation and criminalization) for their peaceful, legitimate human rights work.

In December 2023, a number of local online media and social media pages started targeting some organizations for their environmental work. They wrote that it was unclear who commissioned their bio-monitoring studies in mining-affected communities, that they might be sharing their data with Azerbaijan to be used against Armenia, and suggested that the National Security should investigate them to address these concerns.

The defamatory attacks and hate speech on social media intensified in January after the publication of a statement raising concerns around the controversial Amulsar mining project, which was signed by 118 Armenian civil society organizations and 57 affected citizens. The project, after being on hold for several years, has now received backing from the government, that on January 18 received a share in the mining company Lydian.

Local communities have been strongly opposing the Amulsar mining project and speaking out against its serious environmental, health, and socio-economic impacts. But the government and the company, instead of addressing these concerns, have been pushing forward the project at all costs and have been trying to silence critical voices. Human rights defenders denouncing the harmful impacts have been facing threats, attacks, smear campaigns and criminalization.

In January, following the joint statement about the Amulsar mine, several environmental human rights defenders and their organizations have again been targeted with hate speech and defamation on social media. The recurring narrative is that they want to hinder Armenia’s economic growth and that they are somehow affiliated with Azerbaijan.

Moreover, in one of the articles published after the release of the statement, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure was quoted saying that “there are public organizations whose activities we do not understand whose mill they are pouring water into” and that the government was looking into the matter. Although the Minister did not mention any specific organization or human rights defender, this statement is extremely worrying as it implies that environmental defenders might be placed under investigation.

“This public smear campaign, taking place with explicit support from government officials, is completely unacceptable: it puts a target on the backs of people working for the protection of the environment and communities. All actors looking to support the development of a sustainable future for Armenia should immediately condemn these attacks, and speak out in support of environmental and human rights defenders,” says Mark Fodor, coordinator of the Defenders in Development campaign at the Coalition for Human Rights in Development.

To stifle?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> dissent, mining companies in Armenia have often criminalized environmental and human rights defenders, as well as journalists, through the use of the so-called “strategic litigation against public participation” (SLAPP). For example, since 2018 Lydian – the mining company developing the Amulsar mine – has filed a series of lawsuits against the volunteers of the local civil society group Armenian Environmental Front, community members,  and other environmental and human rights defenders. Among the defenders targeted, there are Nazeli Vardanyan (lawyer and director of the “Armenian Forests” NGO) and Tehmine Yenokyan (environmental defender and journalist, who has also faced another lawsuit from Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine in 2022 and 2023).

“To identify and mitigate environmental and social risks, international financial institutions require public consultations on the projects they fund. But if human rights defenders and communities face restricted civic space and fear retaliation, they can’t meaningfully engage with the lenders and their clients. Civic space restrictions can jeopardize the participatory approach and increase the risk of project non-compliance and cancellation. In May, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will hold its annual meeting in Yerevan, including a civil society programme. If the retaliation against Armenian environmental and human rights defenders doesn’t stop, this event is at risk”, says Nina Lesikhina, policy officer at CEE Bankwatch Network.  

In another recent case, on 9 February 2024, the president of Centre for Community Mobilization and Support (CCMS) and human rights defender Oleg Dulgaryan received a letter from Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC), the largest mining company in the country. In the letter, the company accused him of defamation and demanded a compensation of one million Armenian drams (approximately 2300 euros), as well as a public retraction of the statements allegedly defaming the company.

“Civil society and rights defenders in Armenia have long performed an integral role facilitating an exchange of information among companies, governments and communities and protecting human and environmental rights in the country. The mounting threats and intimidation have a rippling effect across all Armenian civil society groups, who were already facing severe limitations to their critical work, and risk jeopardizing any consultations with communities on development decisions affecting them”, says Ryan Schlief, Executive Director of the International Accountability Project


About the Amulsar gold mine

The Amulsar gold mine is located in south-east Armenia near the town of Jermuk, one of the country’s top tourist destinations, famous for its spa resorts. Nearby, there are also some rural villages where people mainly rely on agriculture. Pollution caused by the mine and the risk of toxic contamination to water sources pose a serious threat to the economic livelihood of these communities, and to endangered animal species in protected areas nearby. There is strong evidence that the Armenian state, Lydian and investors (including the development banks European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) breached their obligations to protect and respect human rights to health and a healthy environment, peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice.

The multinational corporation Lydian International started developing the project in 2006. Exploration and construction activities have already been carried out, but the mine infrastructure has not been completed yet and the project was put on hold for several years until the recent announcement of the Armenian government.

The Amulsar mine has already received a total of US$ 426 million from development finance institutions and private investors. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) provided US$ 4.5 million in equity to Lydian in 2009 and 8.9 million in 2016,25 but exited the project after Lydian International restructuring in 2020. Apart from EBRD’s support, throughout the years Lydian also received a total of US$ 16.4 million from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), but the bank withdrew in May 2017. 

Lydian faced bankruptcy a few years ago, underwent reorganization, and transferred ownership rights to its major shareholders. In January 2024, under the leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian government decided to acquire 12.5% of the shares of Lydian Armenia as state property. In a statement, over 100 Armenian civil society groups have expressed their indignation regarding this decision, saying how their concerns have not disappeared. Instead, they have increased, as even “the best international and national experts and scientists have confirmed the environmental, social, economic risks and dangers of the Amulsar project”.

Previous reprisals in the context of the Amulsar mine

Detailed information about reprisals in the context of the Amulsar mining project can be found at page 21-25 of the report “Wearing Blinders” (Coalition for Human Rights in Development, 2022).

Since 2011, local residents and Armenian environmental defenders have drafted petitions, submitted official complaints and organized numerous protests to oppose the development of the Amulsar mine. Protests intensified in 2018, when the Velvet Revolution swept old elites and an authoritarian government out of power. Members of the local communities started blocking the roads leading to the mine and the construction works were suspended. As the protest grew stronger, retaliations?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> against those leading or participating in the protests also intensified.

Since construction work started, dozens of local activists have been harassed, smeared, threatened and criminalized by the company. The company has been systematically deploying Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) as a tactic to silence project opponents, and especially against those who were reporting cases of alleged corruption. Lydian has filed more than 20 cases, mostly in 2018 and 2019, and most of them are still ongoing. Through defamation lawsuits, it has been demanding people retract their criticism and seeking excessive financial compensation for the damages caused to its reputation.

Dozens of activists have been sued for social media posts or comments during meetings, two media outlets for publishing news stories about the project, two members of parliament for their speeches during parliamentary meetings. In some cases, judges also suspended the bank accounts of activists accused by the company. Social media has been systematically used to harass activists, damage their reputations, and generate strong pressure to silence them. Women human rights defenders were also targeted with offensive and sexist remarks.

Image: Peter Liakhov

February 22, 2024 at 13:32