An Armenia court has opened a controversial trial against a human rights activist from the minority Yazidi community over comments he made in an interview, despite international concerns about his prosecution.
Prosecutors accuse Sashik Sultanian, the head of the Yazidi Center for Human Rights, of "inciting ethnic enmity between Armenians and Yazidis," a mostly Kurdish-speaking religious group.
The probe against Sultanian was launched in October 2020 after he conducted an interview with the Yezidinews.am website in June that year. He has been restricted from leaving Armenia for six months.
In the interview, Sultanian said that Yazidis faced discrimination, their rights were not protected, and they were unable to develop their culture, language, or practice their religion.
He also claimed Yazidis were underrepresented in local government structures, that Armenians seized Yazidi property, and the community was not allowed to develop economically.
Prosecutors argue that Sultanian's statements don't fall under human rights advocacy and protected speech "since all allegations mentioned in the interview do not correspond to reality."
Sultanian says his comments were not directed against the Armenian people, but rather the government. The interview was deleted on the day of publication at his request.
Several international and national human rights organizations have denounced the proceedings against Sultanian as an assault on freedom of speech that will have a chilling effect on those who stand up for minority rights.
Armenian authorities have obligations to ensure human rights defenders can freely carry out their activities without any restrictions, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said in a letter to Armenia's top prosecutor last week.
"This is all the more important when such legitimate speech addresses the treatment of minorities and is aimed at protecting and promoting their rights," she said.
In June, Human Rights Watch called on the Armenian authorities to drop the charges against Sultanian, saying his opinions were protected free speech.
UN special rapporteurs on human rights defenders, minority issues, and freedom of expression have also called on Armenian authorities to drop the case.
"It is not incitement to hatred or violence to raise human rights concerns about the treatment of minorities," the UN experts said in August. "We call on Armenia to drop these criminal charges, which appear designed simply to intimidate Mr. Sultanian and others who stand up for minority rights."
There are only an estimated 1.5 million Yazidis in the world, most of whom live in northern Iraq. There are smaller populations in Syria, Turkey, and in the European diaspora. There are about 40,000 Yazidis in Armenia, where they make up the largest minority group.
Sultanian's next hearing is scheduled for January 26.