The recent death of a 24-year-old man in police custody in Armenia is prompting human rights activists to renew calls for an end to police abuse of prisoners. The push by rights activists is causing law-enforcement officials in Yerevan to back-peddle.
Vahan Khalafian died on April 13 at the Charentsavan police station, roughly 40 kilometers north of Yerevan, after he was brought in for questioning in connection with a robbery, involving the theft of clothes from a garage. Police claimed that Khalafian committed suicide “with a kitchen knife” taken from a shelf in the station. Khalafian’s family, however, believes that he “was tortured and killed.”
“My son’s face and feet were all covered with bruises. He was stabbed twice in the abdomen and had a cross-shaped cut on his chest,” Anahit Khalafian, the victim’s mother, recounted to EurasiaNet.org. “Was my son a yogi or something to be able to stab himself twice?”
The Special Investigation Service (SIS), which is investigating the case, rejects Mrs. Khalafian’s contention. The SIS declined to provide any information about the case, citing the fact that it is an “ongoing investigation.”
The mother of another young man arrested with Khalafian claims that her son, now in prison, was also subjected to violence.
“When I saw him he had wounds on his head. He said: ‘Mom, I have signed some papers. I don’t know what’ll happen, but they beat me terribly. I had to either die like Vahan, or write what they wanted,’” said Armik Gharibian, the mother of Davit Giulumian. Gharibian assumes that the papers contained an admission of guilt.
The police at first categorically denied that Khalafian had been beaten or otherwise abused. At an April 17 press conference, Armenian Chief of Police Alik Sargsian asserted that Khalafian was “merely interrogated and no one laid a finger on him.”
But, following appeals by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and New York City-based Human Rights Watch for a thorough, transparent investigation, a high-ranking official has been taken into custody. [Editor’s Note: Human Rights Watch receives funding from the New York-based Open Society Institute (OSI). EurasiaNet operates under OSI’s auspices].
The SIS now says that Ashot Harutiunian, head of the Charentsavan Criminal Investigation Department, “used violence against Khalafian, forcing him to testify against himself and confess his crime.” Harutiunian is now facing charges of abusing his position, and with negligence leading to “grave consequences.” If convicted, he faces up to a 10-year prison term.
Another police officer, Moris Hayrapetian, has also been detained on the same charges.
Armenian Chief of Police Sargsian later apologized for his earlier statement, though maintained that Khalafian had committed suicide.
The apology caused additional anguish for Khalafian’s mother. “If the investigation is still in process, if the forensic examination results are not ready yet, nothing is clear,” she said. “How can the chief of police claim that it was suicide?”
This is the second reported case of a death at an Armenian police station since 2007, when murder witness Levon Gulian died during interrogation at a Yerevan precinct house. As with Khalafian, police named suicide as a possible reason for his death. In 2009, an investigation into Gulian’s death was suspended for lack of evidence.
In their April 27 statement, the FIDH and Armenian human rights groups stressed that their “organizations are deeply concerned by the seemingly pervasive culture of impunity for crimes committed by or under the responsibility of law enforcement bodies in Armenia.”
The General Prosecutor’s office vigorously disputed that assessment. “There is no atmosphere of impunity, the General Prosecutor’s office follows up on all alerts, ensuring a comprehensive investigation,” said spokesperson Sona Truzian.
But Armenia’s ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, maintains that his office has difficulty receiving information from the police about abuse complaints. Harutiunian states that roughly half of the 5,000 reported rights abuse cases that his office receives are police-related.
“Cases of police violence are way too frequent, and experience shows that in the majority of cases, violence and torment is used to force a confession of guilt,” said Harutiunian. “When we turn to the police to clarify those issues, they keep giving us the same answer: ‘An internal investigation has been carried out. The claim of violence has not been confirmed.’”
Harutiunian wryly suggested that “Health Hazard” notices should be posted outside all police stations.
The General Prosecutor’s office is required to investigate police abuse cases. But according to human rights law expert Davit Hakobian, that usually does not happen. Instead, “the police start an internal investigation, which is a mere formality,” Hakobian claimed.
Not only human rights activists and opposition members are speaking out against police abuse; governing Republican Party of Armenia MP Rafik Petrosian, speaking at an April 1 news conference, demanded that officials “put an end to the violence so common among the police.”
Police spokesperson Sayat Shirinian denied such accusations. “Violence is by no means common among the police,” Shirinian asserted. “Human rights activists and politicians have probably nothing to do but throw mud at the police. All of it is a brazen lie.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.