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By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenians are far more scared of dealing with their police than falling victim to a crime because of endemic police brutality, the country’s former longtime Justice Minister David Harutiunian admitted on Tuesday.

“In our society, there is much more fear of police than that of criminals, and that is an unfortunate phenomenon,” Harutiunian said.

The remarks came during a seminar in Yerevan that discussed the widespread mistreatment of criminal suspects and witnesses detained by law-enforcement bodies. Local and international human rights regard the practice as the most common form of human rights violations in Armenia. They say it has continued unabated since the country signed up in 2002 to the European conventions on human rights and the prevention of torture.

Harutiunian, who ran the Justice Ministry for a decade before taking over the Armenian parliament’s committee on legal affairs last June, agreed that police brutality remains commonplace. But he said local media and civic groups can hardly help to address the problem with “criticism alone” and made a case for “systemic changes” that would place the security apparatus under public oversight.

Larisa Alaverdian, Armenia’s former human rights ombudsperson who is currently an opposition parliamentarian, claimed that the authorities are inherently disinterested in tackling ill-treatment in custody. She argued that very few police officers have been prosecuted for human rights abuses.

“Big interests are involved there,” said Alaverdian. “I don’t believe that the supreme authority wants to put an end to that but can’t succeed.”

Alaverdian and other seminar participants cited the recent death in police custody of Levon Gulian, a 31-year-old man who was questioned in connection with a murder committed near his Yerevan restaurant. Gulian was found dead in the courtyard of a police building after several days of interrogations in still uncertain circumstances.

The police insist that he fell to his death while attempting to escape from the second-floor interrogation room. His relatives believe, however, that he was tortured to death before being thrown out of the window.

According to journalists and human rights activists present at the seminar, two employees of Gulian’s restaurant claim to have been beaten up by police interrogators. Mikael Danielian of the Armenian Helsinki Association alleged that the police are now trying to bully them into retracting their torture claims.

Police representatives declined to attend the discussion, citing a busy work schedule.

(Photolur photo: David Harutiunian.)
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