On 19 November, Armenia’s National Assembly passed a new draft bill on criminalizing the creation of criminal subculture groups. The bill passed, despite both parliamentary opposition parties opposing it.
The aim of the bill is to criminally prosecute those who are members or supporters of ‘thieves in law’, the largest criminal subculture in Armenia.
The bill was introduced to the parliament in September and will have to go through a second hearing before it will be officially accepted as law.
A ‘thief in law’ is an adherent to a criminal cultural phenomenon that arose in Soviet gulags, and continues to exist within post-Soviet countries and their diasporas.
According to this new bill, creating or heading a ‘criminal subculture grouping’ will be punishable by law with 5-10 years in prison.
If such activities are organized in a prison, in the armed forces, or with the involvement of minors, then the individual will be punished with 8-12 years.
During discussions of the draft bill on 29 August, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he had a personal brush with the subculture during his own stint in prison
‘I, myself, have seen instances in the prison system where people and their families have had to sell even their last piece of clothing to protect their loved ones from this predatory system’, Pashinyan said. ‘We must act very decisively. Clearly, there will be people who will try to stop us, but we must be strict and resolve this issue.’
During the first hearing in parliament on November 19, only the ruling My Step faction voted in favor of the bill. The opposition Bright Armenia party abstained, while Prosperous Armenia, the largest opposition faction within parliament, voted against the bill.
Gevorg Petrosyan, a member of the Prosperous Armenia, questioned the importance of the bill, ‘Is this the most important issue our country faces right now?’ he asked.
‘In recent years I have not seen those with ‘criminal authority’ [thieves in law] causing unrest’, he added.
Prior to the vote, Varduhi Baghdasaryan, one of the co-authors of the bill, reported receiving threats. She stated that different people have approached her and warned to back away from the bill — reminding her that she has a child.
‘Right now, I can’t legally state that this was a clear threat, but I can state as fact that I was ‘advised’ to do so’, Baghdasaryan told Azatutyun on 14 November. She claims that different people approached her to relay this message and that they mentioned Vardan Ghukasyan’s name.
Vardan Ghukasyan, the former mayor of Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, and a current member of the Prosperous Armenia faction, denies this claim and has even threatened to sue journalists who have questioned him on this issue.
‘I am someone who respects high office. I respect Armenia’s Prime Minister, Catholicos, etc. I conduct myself in a proper manner’, Ghukasyan told Azatutyun. ‘Law enforcement authorities have investigated me and have been very strict [towards me]. I’m not one of those many people you know who live in privileged conditions.’
The Prosecutor General’s office is looking into the alleged threats made against Varduhi Baghdasaryan.
Ghukasyan is a controversial figure and has previously made controversial statements about thieves in law.
‘Nobody in this world is as fine as thieves in law when it comes to respecting those who live “the right way”’, he told reporters on 13 November. ‘We won’t send them to prison for that, they have to have done something illegal to be jailed.’
His colleague from Prosperous Armenia, Artyom Tsarukyan, has justified the comment as ‘Gyumri humor.’
During the four-day National Assembly session in which the bill was presented and discussed, Pashinyan stated that any ‘propaganda’ of criminal subcultures must be rooted out of the country because they are the ‘greatest accomplice to corruption’.
He then responded to the alleged threats made against Varduhi Baghdasaryan.
‘If there are people, including politicians, including members of parliament that think they can threaten other MPs through intermediaries in connection to this bill, then I’m telling you directly we will lay you down on the asphalt and will punish you.’
‘Let no one try, may they be from the former or current regime that has looted half of the second-largest city of our country, to believe they can [say and do whatever they like]’, he said, with what many interpreted to be a veiled reference to Vardan Ghukasyan.
‘We will lay you on the asphalt’, he continued. ‘Let them listen closely because if not, you will be witness to those scenes in reality.’
Prosperous Armenia MP Iveta Tonoyan told reporters that the issue is not about any thieves in law or an individual’s relationship with the subculture, rather it should be about the nature of the crime itself.
‘Any crime committed should be punished and there can’t be any other opinion on this,’ she said. ‘However, in this case, the law is completely flawed, there are issues with legal clarifications, and this is why we voted against the bill.’
She went on to say that claims that certain Prosperous Armenia MPs have connections to the country’s criminal subculture are not true.
Bright Armenia MP Taron Samsonyan told reporters that his party abstained on the bill, not because against it in principle, but rather because they believe it to be legally ambiguous.
As an example, he cited the prevalence of gangster dramas on Armenian television.
‘We can’t just pass a bill on this issue but still continue to show films and soap operas that glorify this phenomenon or that portray romantic ideals about this criminal culture or subculture’, he said.
My Step MP Maria Karapetyan told reporters that Bright Armenia should have nevertheless voted in favor to send a strong message to the public that they too are against this phenomenon.
‘They could have waited to see if their suggestions to the bill were accepted or not during the second hearing of the bill and then voted against it,’ Karapetyan said.
Representatives of the My Step faction has stated that if the only concern the opposition with regard to the bill is with regard to its wording, then they are ready to cooperate with them to find more agreeable terms.
The date for the bill’s second hearing has not yet been set.