YEREVAN | In what is still a conservative and hidebound country, Mariam Sukhudyan hardly comes across as typical. The smell of incense wafts across her family’s modest apartment in the Armenian capital, and meditative music plays softly. Her bicycle, a rarity in a car-obsessed culture, takes up most of the hallway that leads to the front door.
But the low-key, even passive figure Sukhudyan cuts at home belies her situation as the latest in a line of young activists in the South Caucasus who find themselves in the unwanted glare of official attention.
The 29-year-old made her name as an environmentalist, protesting the felling of parts of the Teghut forest in northeast Armenia as part of plans to develop a copper mine. But while her counterparts find themselves politically isolated, Sukhudyan has become a target of Armenia’s criminal-justice system, facing prosecution for publicizing alleged physical and sexual abuse of students in one of the country’s dilapidated, Soviet-era boarding schools for children with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities.
Complaints about conditions at the institutions are nothing new. While enrollment at the schools has declined from 12,000 to 5,000 in recent years, some remain dumping grounds for children from socially vulnerable families, who enroll their children in the schools to get food and clothing donated to the facilities.
Critics say school directors, who receive funding on a per-capita basis, oppose government plans to return children to their biological parents, or place them in foster care, and integrate them into mainstream education. That plan is backed by international children’s organizations such as UNICEF and World Vision, who argue that a focus on inclusive education is better for many learning-disabled kids than effectively hiding them away in residential institutions.
“A strategy is being implemented to restructure boarding schools, but the issue is one of finance and a lack of specialists in this area,” said Kristine Mikhailidi, child-protection officer at World Vision Armenia. “De-institutionalization should occur by 2015, but the situation remains one of concern.”
Sukhudyan’s claims, however, went well beyond issues of substandard care. After volunteering at the Nubarashen No. 11 boarding school in Yerevan last year, she told local media about conditions there. The main public television station aired her accusations last November.
“According to accounts from the children, they are subjected to beatings and other forms of physical punishment,” according to an online statement signed by Sukhudyan and 11 other volunteers at the school. “We personally witnessed needlessly harsh treatment of children by teachers and night guards. The school director and other administrative workers use children as a free labor force in their homes and summer houses.”
After investigating the allegations, police brought defamation charges against Sukhudyan, exposing her to up to five years in prison. None of the 11 other volunteers who went public is being prosecuted. In October the charge was reduced to slander, but Sukhudyan still faces up to three years in jail and a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 dram (about $260 to $1,300).
“The new charge is because of the publicity surrounding my situation, and because they simply can’t prove the previous charge,” she said. A conviction for slander rather than defamation would also make Sukhudyan eligible for an amnesty introduced in the wake of last year’s post-election violence – but only in exchange for admitting guilt, which she has refused to do.
“I’m innocent. Why should I lie and say I’m not? I do not want to make my life easier. It’s simpler for me to go until the very end and the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.”
The allegations helped prompt Armenia’s government to form a committee to monitor the boarding schools. Many familiar with the facilities also take the volunteers’ accusations seriously.
“Physical abuse is always there,” Mikhailidi said. “They are yelling, they are beating on these kids, and all these things are happening. Closed facilities, no interaction with society, no one is coming in, they don’t have skills to work with these kids – all this brings an abusive situation.”
A teacher accused by two children from the school of sexually abusing them resigned soon after the allegations were aired, but generally the school’s staff denies claims of widespread abuse.
“They are lying,” said Donara Hovhanissyan, Nubarashen’s head of education, of Sukhudyan and her colleagues. “Because they were so young and inexperienced, they didn’t understand that every child here has mental disabilities and very active imaginations. It’s very easy for them to make something up.”
Sukhudyan acknowledges she never witnessed any sexual abuse at Nubarashen. But she stands by the children’s claims.
“This little girl who was speaking about serious sexual abuse was terribly distressed,” Sukhudyan said. “She was in such a state that I was saying we shouldn’t ask any more questions because she was in such emotional distress.”
One of the departed teacher’s two accusers has since retracted her allegations, but Sukhudyan contends she did so under pressure from school officials. She said the teenage girl discussed the matter with Armin Gharibyan, another Nubarashen volunteer, and that a recording of the conversation was turned over to police, who rejected it as material evidence. According to Armenian press reports, the official transcript of the recording omits any discussion of the alleged coercion.
At a press conference in early November, Sukhudyan’s lawyer played the recording and accused the authorities of tampering with evidence. Prosecutors subsequently ordered a re-investigation of the case, on the grounds that the recording, and the testimony of the other alleged victim, who has not recanted, were not accepted as evidence in the original probe.
Rather than welcome this seeming victory for the defense, however, Sukhudyan said the delay is frustrating, as she has been confined to Yerevan pending a resolution of the case, and thus prevented from attending public meetings in Teghut on the copper mine.
“I can’t help but link this case with Teghut, because I’m not the first activist to be subjected to such pressure,” she told Radio Free Europe in August. “This may be a good opportunity [for the authorities] to break our movement and force me to shut up.”
Other prominent civil society activists express similar concerns. “It looks like active citizens are not encouraged in our country,” Sona Ayvazyan, a specialist at the Armenian affiliate of Transparency International, told journalists at an August demonstration by Sukhudyan’s supporters. “The authorities seem to be trying to eliminate such citizens one by one. Mariam is simply the latest victim, and we don’t know who will be next.”