A former teacher of a boarding school in Yerevan faced 18 months in prison on Wednesday after admitting sexually and physically abusing his students during his ongoing high-profile trial.
Levon Avagian pleaded guilty to corresponding criminal accusations following months of strong denial of any improper conduct. As recently as last summer, the Armenian police cleared Avagian of any wrongdoing and tried to prosecute instead a civic activist who had helped to trigger the sex abuse scandal.
Mariam Sukhudian, a leader of the environment protection group SOS Teghut, worked, together with several other young people, as a volunteer at the school for children with special needs in April-June 2008. They said afterwards that some schoolgirls alleged abuse at the hands of Avagian.
Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls and alerted Armenian media about her claims in late 2008. The school administration strongly denied the allegations.
Sukhudian was subsequently charged with “false denunciation,” a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. But in early March, state prosecutors ordered the police to drop the extremely controversial charge and again turn their attention to Avagian.
The gray-haired teacher, who left the school located in Yerevan’s southern Nubarashen suburb last year, was subsequently accused of committing “obscene acts against minors” accompanied by violence and intimidation. He insisted on his innocence at the start of the trial on April 26.
In a dramatic about-face, Avagian on Wednesday declared that he admits his guilt and asked a Yerevan district court to continue the trial under a so-called “accelerated procedure” that does not involve a public questioning of witnesses and victims. Both the presiding judge and the trial prosecutor accepted the request despite protests from five former students who testified against Avagian.
The alleged victims argued that they planned to add new abuse claims to their pre-trial testimonies, which could lead to the toughening of the charges leveled against their former teacher. “When we studied at the Nubarashen school, Mr. Avagian would also beat children. The investigators did not ask us questions about that,” one of them, Hasmik Sinanian, told the court.
The prosecutor, Karen Batikian, likewise accused Avagian of routinely ill-treating and bullying his underage students with methods “characteristic of feudal systems.” Batikian demanded a 18-month prison sentence for the defendant.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service afterwards, Sinanian criticized the punishment sought by the prosecutor as “too mild.” “I think that’s enough,” disagreed another victim, Diana Amirkhanian.
The Nubarashen scandal has raised more questions about Armenia’s boarding schools, which are primarily supposed to educate orphans and disabled children. They have long been notorious for a lack of transparency, poor sanitary conditions and ill-treatment of students.