News24

Armenia attacks expose anti-gay hatred

2012-05-25 13:02

Yerevan - The acrid stench of burnt plastic still hangs in the air at the devastated basement bar, its walls blackened and fixtures melted by intense heat after the fire-bombers staged their nocturnal raid.

The alleged "hate crime" bombing this month of alternative music bar DIY - popular with Yerevan's young liberals and gays - has sparked fear and anger in Armenia's small gay community and highlighted deep-rooted homophobia in the conservative Christian ex-Soviet state.

"By terrorising me, they want to give a lesson to others too," said owner Armine "Tsomak" Oganezova amid the ruin of the once-vibrant underground hotspot.

She alleged that the attack was staged by "members of a fascist organisation" who had repeatedly harassed the bar since it opened.

"It seems that today the life of anyone that is different in our country is under threat," she said.

After being caught on surveillance cameras, two Iranian-Armenian brothers aged 19 and 20 were arrested for alleged arson, police said without specifying any political motives.

Political scandal

But within days of the blaze, extremists attacked the bar again, this time spraying swastikas on the walls and burning "No to Fascism" posters put up by well-wishers.

The scandal quickly turned political when local media reported that two lawmakers from the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) party had paid the bomb suspects' bail.

One of them, Artsvik Minasian, was reported as saying that causing damage was wrong but the attackers "acted the right way, in the context of our societal and national ideals".

Minasian later denied the lawmakers paid bail, but told AFP that he did petition the court on the attackers' behalf and accused DIY's owner of trying to "artificially aggravate the situation, to become famous".

The political row escalated when the deputy speaker of parliament, Eduard Sharmazanov, gave an interview to local media that appeared to justify the violence.

"As an Armenian citizen and member of [the ruling] national-conservative party, I find the rebellion of the two young Armenian people against the homosexuals... completely right and justified," he was reported as saying, although he did not respond to AFP's requests for clarification.

Untroubled by possibility of arrests

Leading blogger Mika Artyan said on his Unzipped: Gay Armenia site that the statement "effectively encourages terrorism".

Rights group Amnesty International meanwhile lamented that "the official response to the firebombing in Yerevan is utterly shocking".

Worryingly for Yerevan's lesbians and gays, extremists seemingly untroubled by the possibility of arrest have kept returning to the gutted bar to spit on the walls and throw cigarette butts.

One of them, 17-year-old Hovsep, wearing a swastika pendant over a death's head T-shirt, said he would keep harassing DIY until "these perverts" leave.

"People like Tsomak [Oganezova] should not live among us. She participated in a gay parade in Turkey. She perverts teenagers," he said.

His friend Vahag, aged 18, accused the bar of being engaged in "open propaganda" for gay rights and said homosexuals should "be shut in their homes".

Victims afraid


Civil rights campaigners say there are serious divisions between the conservative majority and the small liberal minority in the small Caucasus state.

"Our society has created certain criteria of what a human should be like. It despises and does not accept those who diverge a little bit from these criteria," said Mamikon Hovsepian, head of campaign group PINK Armenia.

He said that incidents of gay-bashing were common, but the victims are often too afraid to go to the police.

"In the nation's value system, a man and a woman have defined roles and any deviation provokes alarm and resistance," said Narine Khachatrian, a psychology professor at Yerevan State University.

But she said she did not believe that there were organised neo-Nazi movements in Armenia and the recent attacks were the work of individuals.

However a small march supporting "diversity" in Yerevan this week was stopped by around 100 young nationalists singing patriotic songs and hurling abuse - even though it was not a gay pride event.

No fear

"Do not promote perversion in our country," demanded one. "You are not Armenians," shouted another, before a priest intervened to prevent clashes.

Despite the bombing of her bar and the possibility of further violence, Oganezova vowed to remain defiant.

"It's impossible to scare me," she said. "I will fight."