The development announced by the Special Investigative Service (SIS) is a massive blow to the credibility of police claims that Vahan Khalafian was not ill-treated by his interrogators and simply committed suicide in police custody.
In a written statement, the SIS said its investigators have found that Ashot Harutiunian, one of two police officers arrested in the ongoing inquiry, “used force” against Khalafian after the 24-year-old refused to confess to a theft committed in Charentsavan. The law-enforcement agency subordinated to Armenian prosecutors said the conclusion is based on testimony given by several other local police officers who were present at the April 13 interrogation.
According to a spokeswoman for Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General, the policemen reaffirmed it during a face-to-face questioning with Harutiunian. “They insisted on their testimony, saying that force was indeed used,” Sona Truzian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“The head of the criminal investigations unit [at the Charentsavan police] did use violence against Vahan Khalafian,” Truzian said, referring to Harutiunian. She said the latter was charged under a Criminal Code article dealing with abuse of power which is “accompanied by use of violence” and causes “severe consequences.” The charge carries between six and ten years’ imprisonment.
Harutiunian was arrested on Monday on suspicion of prodding Khalafian to commit suicide. A corresponding accusation has been leveled against one of his police subordinates who was placed under arrest last week.
Whether the SIS believes Khalafian died as a result of torture or, as has been claimed by the Armenian police, stabbed himself to death is not yet clear. Truzian said SIS investigators will answer this question after the continuing forensic examinations of Khalafian’s body. The SIS statement said the investigators have still not received their final results.
Armenia -- Police chief Alik Sargsian holds a news conference, 14 April 2010.
Khalafian’s relatives say forensic medics detected at least two stab wounds on his abdomen and numerous bruises in other parts of his body during the first examination conducted on April 15. They says this proves their view that the young man was tortured to death.
The police have categorically denied this so far. “I am officially stating that there was not a single injury on his body,” the chief of the national police service, Alik Sargsian, assured journalists on April 14.
“I want to make clear that there was no torture,” Sargsian insisted, speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service several days later. He claimed that Khalafian confessed to the crime and that there was “simply no point in subjecting him to torture.”
The police on Thursday declined to react to the new embarrassing twist in the SIS-led inquiry into an incident that has cast renewed spotlight on their notorious interrogation techniques. A police spokesman told RFE/RL that Sargsian will comment “in the coming days.”
Local and international human rights groups, which believe that police brutality is commonplace in Armenia, have expressed serious concern about Khalafian’s death and urged the authorities to properly investigate it. In an April 21 letter to Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, Human Rights Watch said such an inquiry would stem from Armenia’s “international obligations.”
“Armenian authorities have an obligation to provide a complete and plausible explanation for and account of any death in custody, based on a thorough and independent investigation which establishes the extent of the liability of the authorities in whose custody the deceased was when he died,” the New York-based group said. “Failure to carry out such an investigation and to pursue any appropriate prosecutions of those responsible would bring Armenia in violation of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
A similar statement was issued on Tuesday by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and three Armenian human rights groups. “This is not the first case of a person dying in [Armenian] police custody,” said the statement.