LGBT Convicts in Armenia: The Term “Homosexual” is a Lifetime Stigma in the Criminal World
By Nare Hovhannisyan
In its 2017 Annual Report, Armenia’s Prison Monitoring Group states that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) prisoners face continuous and systematic discrimination, ill-treatment and torture in Armenia, due to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
During January-February of 2016 the Group of Observers received 112 allegations and paid 94 visits to the following penal institutions: Abovyan, Artik, Armavir, Goris, Hrazdan, Kentron, Kosh, Nubarashen, Sevan, Vanadzor, Vardashen and The Hospital for Convicts.
Besides psychological pressures, the report states that they are also subjected to sexual exploitation and physical abuse by both sides - other inmates and the prison staff.
Communicating or having any affiliation with LGBT inmates is unacceptable, according to the report’s findings.
The Nubarashen Penitentiary administration also confirms (Report-page 99) that other convicts and detainees refuse to communicate with them or use the same tableware. According to the unwritten laws of the criminal subculture, if a heterosexual person communicates with a homosexual, he gets “broken” or loses the status of a “normal human”.
They call those trans people “bigudzi” (hair curlers) in prisons. There is always a queue at their doors. Sometimes they are brought to the cells, but it is allowed to have sex with them exclusively in the toilets. Those do not have the right to enter the cell. Those can’t be kissed; only harsh sex is allowed.
The prices differ. Anal sex costs 20,000 drams, oral one – 15,000. If they want both, a discount is made – 30,000 drams. Age also matters; a young one costs more. Dressed female costs more.
In “Nubarashen” there was a trans, who was arguing and requiring a condom, but the staff wouldn’t give it. So, she would either have to buy one, or get one from the prison health care staff by exchanging for a cigarette.
Former convict, “Nubarashen” PI
One of the most important “pragons” (common rule) is that criminals do not engage in any, even trade relations with homosexuals. Even if a normal person buys a cell phone from them, he can be disqualified and sent to their cell. Only “zeroes” (convicts who are considered inferior) and “abslug”-s (servants) can relate with them, as they don’t have a criminal status.
The system of the cells is organized the way that items, such as food, cigarettes and marihuana, can be transferred between any cells. That path is called a criminal path. Prisoners give the item to the “leg” (controller) and tell him to take it to this or that location. If there is a need for a floor transfer, they use a cord. The cells of homosexuals are excluded even from that criminal path.
Former detainee, “Nubarashen” PI
“They are izgoys (outcasts) neglected by the society – both inside and outside”
Keeping convicts and detainees separate based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is not stipulated by any in-state law.
Moreover, Armenia’s Penitentiary Code and the Law on “Treatment of Arrestees and Detainees” state that the procedure and conditions for the execution of a sentence and keeping detainees under detention should be applied to all prisoners regardless of their sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, ethnic or social origin, nationality, birth, property or other status. They all have a right to be called by their name or surname, as well as a right to respectful treatment and personal safety.
Whereas, public monitors recorded (Report-page 99), that LGBT prisoners in accordance with their written applications are transferred to cells designed for “deranged”, “arvamol”-s (addicted to males), “gomik”-s or “foreigners”, which significantly differ from other cells of prisons with their unsightliness and insufficient conditions (follow the link to see pictures of cells).
Prison staffers justify this by citing the necessity of assuring the security of LGBT prisoners from sexual or other types of abuses, exploitation, inhumane or humiliating treatment. As a justification, LGBT prisoners mention their sexual orientation, gender identity or the impossibility of serving the sentence in the same cell together with others in the applications. Whilst, the applications are not being registered by the prison staff, since there is no such legal procedure provided by any law.
We were told the same during interviews with former prisoners and LGBT prisoners from Nubarashen, The Hospital for the Convicted, Armavir and Abovyan penitentiaries (interviews with LGBT prisoners were held by phone in August-September 2018).
Any individual entering the “zone” (prison), has to claim to be “so” (homosexual). He has to directly inform the staff. If without informing in advance, he enters a regular cell, and they find it out there, he might be beaten, smashed, crushed. If he doesn’t know these rules, and enters a normal cell, they send him off after 2-3 questions. If he keeps it in secret, and they find it out in the cell, they put him in a horrible condition. Any homosexual, who enters the prison, has to know his place. Otherwise, they’ll show him.
Former convict, “Nubarashen” PI
“There are 4 cells for our “brigade” here. I can’t tell you the exact number. We’re around 11 people now. Everyone in the institution knows about those cells. They know about it even outside of the institution. The rooms for long and short visits are separated for us, too. We all have the label, the tag of homosexuals on our backs here.
We do unpaid work for 2 hours a day. All of us do it, regardless of being convicted or detained. We are being useful by cleaning. That’s why we are respected. We are not treated based on who we are.
Homosexual prisoner, “Nubarashen” PI
We are around 10 people here in the “Hospital for the Convicted”; 5 people in the therapeutic department, 2 in the surgical department, and 5 in the pulmonological one (not everyone is ill). We sweep the territory here, clean the garbage, dig in the garden, and do mulching. In return, “palazhenie” (regulation) gives us cigarettes and food. We take our meal from the kitchen with our separate pots.
I was initially placed in “Nubarashen”. There is nothing remarkable there. The staff would say “We’ve received a gift – we’re bringing in an “arvamol” (addicted to males). Yet, the regime is soft here. They don’t “break” or humiliate us.
Homosexual prisoner, “Hospital for the Convicted” PI
More than 30 people stay in our cells currently. Our quarantine and punishment cells are also separate here. We are off the criminal world. That’s why we don’t pay to the “obshyak” (common fund of criminal community). We don’t touch anything in the kitchen - the tableware, or the bread. Our meal is not poured from the same place; our saucepan is separate. Our washing machine is separate, too. We can’t even shake hands with others. The others only take coffee or cigarettes from us, if the pack is not opened.
We use the library. There are classes of computer, pottery, Armenian language and literature, foreign languages here. But they do not involve us in. We are only involved in unpaid work. We make cleaning. In return, they treat us well. For example, they informally leave the doors of our cells open…
Homosexual prisoner, “Armavir” PI
There are currently around 100 women here. I’m the only “lesbianka” (lesbian). That’s how they call homosexual women here. At some point, I asked the head to separate me and my girlfriend from the others. We wanted to live in peace, without any conflicts. Plus, the rest would not say “we don’t feel well, when you hug your girlfriend”. Back then, the communication between the staff and convicts was frequent. They were drinking coffee together. Well, 90-95% of the staff is “geghatsi” (peasant, ref.-illiterate, impolite). They would gossip about us. But then the head made the order stricter. The staff doesn’t sit and talk with the convicts anymore. They don’t make unnecessary comments or touch us anymore.
Lesbian prisoner, “Abovyan” PI
It is noteworthy that in reality not all prisoners residing in the same cells and holding the same status identify themselves as homosexual. People abiding unwritten laws of criminal subculture or those who have breached them and people having committed certain crimes are also incarcerated in cells designed for homosexuals (available in Armenian).
Some people are homosexual. And there are also some people who live under the name of a homosexual. This means that he has done something unacceptable in the prison, and for that has been sent to “that place” (detention cell for homosexuals). For example, he has stolen the sound money of the “obshyak”, has shaken hands or eaten with a homosexual. The criminals say, “If you want to communicate or share meal with homosexuals that much, go there.”
They can also in some way “spoil” a person. Not necessarily by raping. They can forcibly touch that person’s hand, butt or face with their sexual organ, and tell him, “That’s it, you’re spoiled, go there.”
The tag, the label of homosexual is already attached, and that person can do nothing. He’s in that “brigade” already. The term “homosexual” is completely different in the criminal world; it is a lifetime stigma.
There was someone who was convicted for the first time. Before imprisonment, he had had sex with his wife in a non-classical way. He had talked about that naively in the prison and they told him “You’re like them (ref. – homosexuals), go their cells.” But he was not homosexual.
There was another one who had committed sexual assault against an invalid (ref. – having a disability) child. He was also thrown into the cell of homosexuals.
Another one was thrown there for committing matricide, and he became a homosexual during that time.
Former convict, “Nubarashen” PI
A young man was brought in from Karabakh. He had been serving in the army. He was sentenced for a rape case during serving in the army. He was immediately placed with the homosexuals in the prison of Shushi. He didn’t know where he was put in. Then during the walk on the second day he noticed that they would look at him in a different way. After he found out, he started to shriek and cry... but it was already late. He was thrown in there... that was it.
Former convict, “Sevan” PI
“Cleaning is their job”
According to the RA Penitentiary Code, by their own will and the decision of the head of the institution, convicts can be engaged in unpaid works aimed at improving penitentiaries and their adjacent areas, provided that such engagement is not at the time of rest, and does not last more than two hours a day.
The decision of the head includes information on the start date and location of the work, its brief description and expected duration, as well as number of engaged convicts. By the way, the RA Law on “Treatment of Arrestees and Detainees” forbids involvement of detainees in unpaid works, except in sanitary-hygienic ones.
LGBT prisoners are involved in unpaid works, too. In contrast with others, they do the most humiliating work. Ex-prisoners of Nubarashen and Sevan penitentiaries told us more details about the situation.
They do the dirtiest works; they clean the zone, the corridors, the walking ground, the room of parcels, the sewage, they pick up the cigarette butts, clean the garbage and carry it into the Sanitek garbage trucks.
For example, while bathing the shampoo may fall on the floor and paralyze the sewage channel. No one but they (ref. – homosexuals) would do it. They call those, give them around 1000-2000 drams, or 1000 drams and a cigarette, then they (ref. – homosexuals) roll up their sleeves, open up the sewage, get their money and leave. But homosexuals don’t clean others’ cells. Someone from that cell usually cleans there. Homosexuals can be told to clean the area in case of repairs or clean the bathroom. They (ref. – homosexuals) usually pick up the garbage from the cells.
After finishing their work, they come and stand in front of the “valchok” (peephole slot) to take 1000 drams, 2 packs of cigarettes or some food from the cells.
Once that rotten prison was “lost in dirt”, as their phones were confiscated, so they weren’t cleaning as a protest.
Those unpaid works ease up their everyday life. Well, it’s one of the game rules of that system. It's a public contract.
Former detainee, “Nubarashen” PI
They are not even allowed to enter the kitchen, get close to food or the parcels. They just do their job, that is – cleaning, which they get “paid” for.
In “Sevan”, there are 4 people sleeping in each “prakhod” (in Rusian slang, “pass”). There is usually a trash bin or two placed there. They come by each morning and empty the bins. Each “prakhod” pays them 500 drams per month. There can be 8 to 10 “prakhod”-s in each quarter. Cleaning of the toilet is paid separately – about 1000-2000 drams.
Former convict, “Sevan” PI
The number of LGBT people in Armenia’s penitentiaries is not known
In response to requests of The Center for Legal Initiatives NGO, Armenia’s Penitentiary Service certified that the number of incarcerated LGBT people is not known. They noted that their separate registration is not conducted to avoid any differentiated treatment. Meanwhile, answers to requests from penitentiary institutions contain contradictory information.
In the Abovyan, Artik and Armavir penitentiaries homosexual prisoners are not registered. The Goris and Hrazdan penitentiaries, and The Hospital of Convicted hold incarcerated people separately in compliance with the legal procedure provided by the law.
Homosexual convicts were not held at Yerevan’s Kentron Penitentiary, and there are no separate cells for homosexuals in Vardashen. All convicts in the Kosh penitentiary live in dormitories. Homosexual convicts are not separated. They reside with others in equal conditions.
From December 2017 to July 2018, 5 convicts in Vanadzor were placed in separate cells. During the same period, 8 homosexuals were imprisoned in Nubarashen and 7 convicts were placed in a dormitory designed for homosexuals in the Sevan facility.
Meanwhile, the statistics (available in Armenian) of alerts and visits of the Prison Monitoring Group demonstrates the opposite in some cases.
In 2017-2018, public monitors received 25 alerts from LGBT prisoners and paid a total of 19 visits. The majority of the alerts were received from Nubarashen (15) and Armavir (7). 2 of them were from The Hospital for the Convicted, and 1 was from Abovyan. Out of 19 visits, 14 were paid to Nubarashen and 1 to Abovyan. Monitors visited Armavir and The Hospital for the Convicted 2 times each.
Alerts were referring to health issues and personal safety of LGBT inmates, their living conditions, as well as cases of self-injuries and discriminative treatment by the prison staff.
Still, LGBT people rarely voice about violations of their rights which is conditioned by a number of reasons. Firstly, Armenia does not have legal regulations for protection of right to freedom from discrimination, as well as effective punishment and liability mechanisms for human rights violations driven by hatred. And secondly, LGBT inmates do not want to reveal their status or do not perceive the ill treatment against them as a problem.
People discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected by the law
There is no anti-discrimination law in Armenia. In February 2018, the Ministry of Justice developed and put into circulation a draft law “On Ensuring Equality”. It has not been adopted yet and basically does not correspond to international and European minimum standards of anti-discrimination legislation. Among other problematic aspects, the protected grounds of discrimination are limited in the draft law and provide no protection from discrimination based sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Armenian Constitution and penitentiary legislation contain non-discrimination provisions, which, however, are not comprehensive and do not provide mechanisms for legal protection. At the same time, the above-mentioned issues are not considered urgent or primary by the state and are in no way presented in respective state reports and policy papers.
For instance, annual and special reports of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia cover the rights of people living in closed institutions only in a general sense and do not them into groups. Therefore, it is not possible to find any mention on violation of rights of LGBT incarcerated people there.
Thus, because of existing legal and legislative gaps, cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in prisons do not receive proper legal evaluation and the foregoing cases are not being investigated effectively.
As a consequence, intolerant treatment, stigma and discrimination by other inmates and the prison staff lead to significantly insufficient and poor conditions for LGBT prisoners and may entail reintegration complications in the future.
Nare Hovhannisyan is President of Armenia’s Center for Legal Initiatives NGO