The recently sacked police chief of the central Armenian town of Charentsavan on Tuesday continued to avoid testifying at the ongoing trial of his former subordinates accused of ill-treating a man who died in local police custody.
Norik Heboyan is regarded by both the defendants and the victim’s relatives as a key witness who could shed more light on the circumstances Vahan Khalafian’s death.
Khalafian, 24 was among several local residents arrested by the Charentsavan police on April 13. He was hospitalized with severe injuries and died several hours later.
State prosecutors say Khalafian stabbed himself to death after being tortured by Major Ashot Harutiunian and the three other police officers standing trial. Khalafian’s relatives, backed by some human rights activists, insist that he was tortured to death and that investigators have failed to hold accountable all local police officials responsible for his brutal treatment.
Heboyan was sacked as head of Charentsavan’s police department in late May. The chief of the national police service, Alik Sargsian, accused him of “negligence” and said he has “no right to continue to work in the department.”
Nonetheless, both Heboyan and his deputy Samvel Tonoyan avoided prosecution. Unlike his boss, Tonoyan was not sacked despite being linked with the incident by the dead man’s relatives. According to some media reports, Khalafian was found dead shortly after Tonoyan arrived at the Charentsavan police station.
The police official denied any involvement in the torture when he testified at a court in the nearby town of Hrazdan on July 21. Heboyan was also due to give testimony on that day but failed to show up without any explanation. The presiding judge, Mesrop Makian interrupted court proceedings as a result.
Heboyan also failed to attend the next court session held on Tuesday. In a letter to the judge, he claimed to have left Armenia on July 22 in order to receive medical treatment in an unnamed foreign country. He said he will stay there for an “indefinite period of time.”
Heboyan also told the court that he stands by his pre-trial testimony and wants it to be read out during the trial. Both the defendants and the Khalafian family demanded, however, that he testify in person.
“There is no proof that Heboyan is in need of treatment,” said Artak Zeynalian, one of the family’s legal representatives. “His behavior suggests that he is guilty.”
Seda Safarian, the main defendant’s lawyer, likewise suggested that the former Charentsavan police chief knows more about the custody death. “I just want to clarify whether his subordinates had the audacity to commit so many violations on that day [without his approval,]” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Judge Makian responded by adjourning the trial until August 18. He ordered court officials to ascertain whether Heboyan is indeed sick and, if necessary, ensure his presence at the trial.
Heboyan is not the first witness in the case to leave the country in suspicious circumstances. Two Charentsavan residents, who were among those detained on April 13, emigrated to Belgium and Russia just days after Khalafian’s death.
Artur Sakunts, an Armenian human rights campaigner who met both men before their departure, claims that at least one of them was also beaten up in detention. Sakunts has also accused the police of forcing them to go abroad to avoid more embarrassing accounts of torture. The police and prosecutors deny these allegations.