A law-enforcement body investigating the latest suspicious death of a criminal suspect in Armenian police custody said on Thursday that it is trying to contact and question two key witnesses who left Armenia just days after the incident.
The Special Investigative Service (SIS) at the same time implicitly denied allegations that they too were ill-treated at the police station of the central town of Charentsavan and then forced to flee the country.
Norayr Chilian and Arayik Arakelian were among several Charentsavan residents who were detained on April 13 on suspicion of involvement in the reported theft of 1.5 million drams ($3,900) worth of goods from a local entrepreneur. One of them, Vahan Khalafian, died in still unclear circumstances several hours later. The Armenian police acknowledged on Friday that he was beaten up before allegedly committing suicide.
Unlike three other suspects, Chilian and Arakelian were set free later on April 13. According to the families, they left for Belgium and Russia respectively several days later.
Artur Sakunts, an Armenian human rights campaigner who met both men before their departure, claimed on Thursday that the police forced them to go abroad to avoid their embarrassing witness accounts of torture. “During our conversations, they did not speak about their [forthcoming] departure from the country,” he said.
“Usually, those fleeing [the country] are important witnesses who are too dangerous to give testimony. Therefore, that means they were very important witnesses in the case and they were simply forced out,” Sakunts told a news conference.
Sakunts, who is based in the northern city of Vanadzor, also stood by his claims that at least one of them, Chilian, was beaten up and seriously injured by Charentsavan policemen.
The SIS effectively denied these allegations later in the day. In a three-page statement, it said the wives of both men have testified in writing that their husbands bore no signs of physical violence after being let go by the Charentsavan police. They were also cited as insisting that Chilian and Arakelian went abroad on April 16 and April 18 respectively for purely economic reasons.
“It is obvious that some people are attempting to use the incident that took place at the police department of Charentsavan to mislead the public with evidently false information,” the SIS charged in a clear reference to Sakunts.
A SIS official told RFE/RL’s Armenian service separately that the law-enforcement body is now ascertaining Chilian’s and Arakelian’s precise whereabouts to try to question them on the Charentsavan affair. The official said investigators would specifically like to know how they were treated by local policemen and whether they can shed more light on Khalafian’s death.
Two of those officers are currently under arrest pending investigation. One of them was charged last week with beating up Khalafian after the latter’s refusal to confess to the crime. The police insist that the 24-year-old stabbed himself to death after the torture.
The victim’s relatives believe, however, that he was tortured to death. Sakunts again endorsed this view at the news conference.
It is still not clear whether the SIS agrees with the murder theory or backs the police version of events. The SIS said on Thursday that the crucial forensic examinations of Khalafian’s body are still not over.