In an unprecedented public apology, the chief of Armenia’s police service admitted on Friday misleading the nation about the recent scandalous death of a young man in police custody.
Alik Sargsian said he was “deceived” by his subordinates into thinking that Vahan Khalafian was not ill-treated at the police station of Charentsavan, a small town in central Armenia.
“I am going to punish all of my employees who gave me incorrect information and thereby put me in an awkward situation,” he said in a written statement sent to RFE/RL’s Armenian service through a spokesman.
The extraordinary statement came the day after Ashot Harutiunian, a senior officer at the Charentsavan police arrested earlier this week, was formally charged with torturing Khalafian to extract a confession about a theft committed in the town. Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) said the charge is based on testimony given by other local police officers.
The police categorically denied mistreating Khalafian until then. “I want to make clear that there was no torture,” Sargsian insisted on April 20.
The police chief, whom President Serzh Sarkisian promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general shortly after the April 13 incident, said Friday he based those claims on assurances given to him by the police department of the Kotayk region, which encompasses Charentsavan.
“I am saying beforehand that I am not going to defend anyone and that all the guilty will be punished,” said Sargsian. “I never encouraged beatings, there are more proper ways of doing the job.”
“Let those people whom I misinformed with my statements forgive me,” he added. “As for those who deceived me, they will be punished with all the strictness of the law. I am not going to forgive anyone.”
Still, Sargsian at the same time stuck to police claims that Khalafian grabbed a knife from a police officer’s drawer and stabbed himself to death after the interrogation. “I continue to insist that it was a suicide,” he said.
Whether or not the SIS agrees with this claim is not yet clear. The law-enforcement body subordinated to state prosecutors said on Thursday that will draw a final conclusion about what caused Khalafian’s death only after the ongoing forensic examinations of his body are over.
The dead man’s relatives insist that the 24-year-old was tortured to death -- a claim that was echoed on Friday by Artur Sakunts, a human rights campaigner closely monitoring the case. He also backed the Khalafian family’s claim that forensic medics found at least two stab wounds on his stomach.
“How could a tortured and beaten young man quickly find a knife in a room totally unfamiliar to him?” Sakunts told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “How did he know where it was kept? Or did they put the knife on a table and tell him to kill himself? … So I believe what happened was a murder.”
While welcoming the police apology, Sakunts said Sargsian should have gone further and stepped down. “This is not an ordinary incident,” he argued. “A person died in police custody. In normal countries, the police chief at least resigns in such circumstances. Not to mention bearing personal responsibility for his subordinates’ abuses.”
“A mere apology can not change the situation,” he added.