By Emil Danielyan
A leading international human rights organization has expressed “deep concern” at the fate of three Armenian army conscripts controversially sentenced to life imprisonment for a double murder which they insist they did not commit.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Armenia’s highest appeals court to overturn the sentences passed by a lower court, saying that they are based on a false “confession” forcibly extracted from one of the defendants.
Razmik Sargsian, Musa Serobian and Araik Zalian were originally convicted of murdering two fellow servicemen in Nagorno-Karabakh and sentenced to 15 years in prison by a local court of first instance in April 2005. They protested their innocence throughout the trial, denounced as a parody of justice by Armenian human rights campaigners, and appealed against the verdict only to have it changed to life imprisonment Armenia’s Court of Appeals on May 30.
According to military prosecutors, the three young men brutally murdered the two other soldiers and dumped their bodies into a reservoir in the north of Karabakh in December 2003 following a brawl over a food parcel that was delivered to one of the servicemen. The main piece of evidence cited by them is Sargsian’s first pre-trial testimony in which he accepted this version of events.
However, Sargsian subsequently retracted the testimony, saying that he incriminated himself and his comrades after several days of torture by investigators. The two other defendants, who never pleaded guilty to the charges, also claim to have been mistreated in custody.
Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, described he torture allegations as “credible,” in a letter sent to the chairman of the Armenian Court of Cassation, Hovannes Manukian, on Tuesday. “There are reasonable grounds to believe that his confession was made following subjection to torture and other cruel treatment,” she said.
“Sargsian states that the investigators handcuffed his hands behind his back, suspended him from his hands and beat him in this position,” added Cartner. “They also threatened him with rape. In a video tape of the confession, Sargsian’s face was swollen and bruised, strongly suggesting that he had suffered ill-treatment prior to making the confession.”
Both lower courts that found Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian guilty refused to investigate the alleged torture, denied by the prosecutors, despite repeated demands by the defense lawyers. Criminal suspects in Armenia are routinely subjected to torture and psychological pressure in pre-trial detention, a problem which is regularly highlighted by HRW and other Western human rights watchdogs. They say the widespread practice has continued unabated since Armenia’s 2001 accession to the Council of Europe and its resulting ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights.
HRW’s Cartner wrote to the head of the Court of Cassation the day after it received a formal appeal from the lawyers of the jailed soldiers. The court is to decide by September 21 whether to take up the extraordinary case.
“Your honor, we hope that the Court of Cassation, will be fully mindful as it reviews the case that it does so in accordance with Armenia’s binding human rights obligations,” Cartner said. “Human Rights Watch believes that it is very important that ... a prompt investigation into the allegations is ordered, and that all measures are put in place to ensure that any conviction based on evidence coerced under torture does not stand.”
The letter charged that the two Armenian courts also failed to address “numerous contradictions in the prosecution’s case, including those related to the date, hour, place, and method of the killing.”
The swollen bodies of the dead soldiers, Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian, were recovered from the vast reservoir in Karabakh’s northern Martakert district in January 2004, about one month after soldiers' disappearance. The prosecutors claim that they died on the same day.
But the defense lawyers point to an official post-mortem which concluded that Mkrtumian died at least two weeks after Yeghiazarian. They suspect that the young men were separately killed by Captain Ivan Grigorian, the Karabakh Armenian commander of their unit who allegedly suffers from alcoholism. Grigorian, they suggest, beat Yeghiazarian to death and killed Mkrtumian after he refused to “confess” to the crime.
The commander of the Karabakh army, Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanian, only added to these suspicions when he wrote to Armenia’s chief military prosecutor in early 2004, asking not to bring charges against Grigorian. Ohanian argued that the Karabakh officer had greatly contributed to the Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan.
The case has highlighted a broader problem of dozens of out-of-combat deaths that occur in the Armenian Armed Forces each year, usually as a result of chronic hazing of conscripts typically aged between 18 and 20. Senior and mid-ranking army officers are rarely prosecuted in connection with those crimes.
Armenia’s Office of the Military Prosecutor reported 19 such deaths during the first half of this year. The official crime statistics show that Armenian soldiers are at much greater risk of dying at the hands of their commanders and comrades than from enemy fire.
(Photo courtesy of the Armenian Helsinki Association: Razmik Sargsian, right, Arayik Zalian, center, and Musa Serobian attend a court session in Yerevan.)