An Armenian police officer standing trial on torture charges on Friday vehemently denied ill-treating a man who was found dead in police custody in still mysterious circumstances last April.
Major Ashot Harutiunian also asserted that contrary to prosecutors’ claims, the victim, Vahan Khalafian, did not commit suicide and was in fact tortured to death by one of his subordinates.
Khalafian was one of several residents of the central Armenian town of Charentsavan detained by the local police on suspicion of theft on April 13. He was hospitalized and died several hours later.
Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS), which has investigated the suspicious death, maintains that the 24-year-old stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife after enduring torture at the hands of Harutiunian and three other officers. A court in the nearby town of Hrazdan began their trial in early July.
The case has had a strong public resonance, highlighting endemic police brutality in Armenia. Local and international human rights groups have long regarded it as one of the most common forms of human rights violation.
Khalafian’s relatives, backed by some human rights activists, insist that the young man was killed at the Charentsavan police station and that the SIS has failed to hold accountable all local police officials responsible for his brutal treatment. They argue, in particular, that forensic experts found two stab wounds and numerous other injuries all over his body.
Harutiunian, who headed the criminal investigations unit at the Charentsavan police until his arrest in April, echoed this argument in a speech delivered at the trial. “There was no suicide there,” he said. “You know why? Because a person committing suicide would not raise his shirt and stab himself twice.”
Harutiunian argued that Khalafian would have otherwise left clear fingerprints on the knife which prosecutors say he grabbed from another policeman’s drawer. “There are no identifiable fingerprints on the knife,” he said. “This fact would also shed a lot of light on what happened there.”
The officer claimed that he was not in the interrogation room when Khalafian was found critically injured. “I heard bangs [from another room,]” he told the court. “When I got into the room, the chairs were overturned. This shows that there a scuffle, a struggle in there. And yet nobody wants to pay attention to that fact.”
Harutiunian then pointed the finger at Moris Hayrapetian, another defendants who has implicated him in the torture. “He thereby covered up the fact that with his actions he negligently caused Vahan Khalafian to die,” he said, dismissing to Hayrapetian’s incriminating testimony.
Harutiunian further alleged that the SIS had the two other defendants, Garik Davtian and Gagik Ghazarian, also testify against him in return for a pledge to spare them imprisonment. He said the law-enforcement agency subordinated to Armenian prosecutors similarly offered him to incriminate his superiors.
“I’m declaring to you now that I didn’t do anything,” said Harutiunian. “I’m ready to be jailed for even 20 years. None of my actions led Vahan Khalafian to commit the so-called suicide.”
“You are thereby trying to save the police’s reputation,” he added, appealing to the trial prosecutors. “Why don’t you uncover the reality instead?”
The trial is scheduled to continue on September 3.