By Gevorg Stamboltsian
A prominent human rights campaigner accused the Armenian military on Thursday of underreporting the number of its soldiers killed in non-combat incidents last year and doing to little to tackle the chronic problem.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry reported 40 such fatalities in 2004, while the Office of Military Prosecutor put their number at 48.
“According to our information, there were 61 cases of deaths. A large part of them were premeditated murders,” Avetik Ishkhanian, chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, said, referring to the hazing and other forms of mistreatment of the conscripts by army officers and fellow soldiers.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion in Yerevan, Ishkhanian said that although the number of non-combat deaths in the Armenian Armed Forces has decreased since the mid-1990s their underlying causes have still not been addressed.
The Armenian army has been plagued with violent incidents ever since its creation in 1992. According to the Defense Ministry, there were 56 and 64 non-combat fatalities among its personnel in 2001 and 2000 respectively.
One of the most serious cases reported in 2003 was the deadly shooting of three soldiers in the northern city of Vanadzor. The victims came under automatic gunfire while guarded the equipment depot of a local military base last August.
The widespread bullying and mistreatment of conscripts has figured prominently in international human rights reports on Armenia. In a February annual report scrutinizing human rights practices around the world, the U.S. State Department noted that the Armenian military “did not take any significant measures to limit or end the practice.” The New York-based Human Rights Watch likewise concluded in 2002 that “no serious reform was undertaken to reduce brutality in the Armenian military.”
However, a senior Defense Ministry official present at the discussion denied that hazing is the principal cause of the deaths. “The phenomenon of hazing does not quite exist in the armed forces,” Colonel Vartan Avetisian claimed. “The deaths have nothing to do with hazing. Most of them result from accidents and emergencies.”