Vahan Khalafian, a 24-year-old resident of Charentsavan, died in April 2010 several hours fater he was detained, along with several other men, on suspicion of theft. His death had a strong public resonance, highlighting endemic police brutality in Armenia.
State prosecutors said that Khalafian stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife after being physically abused by Major Ashot Harutiunian, a senior Charentsavan police officer, in the presence of three other policemen.
An Armenian court of first instance sentenced Harutiunian to eight years in prison on corresponding charges last November. Another police officer received a suspended two-year prison sentence while the two others were acquitted.
Harutiunian strongly denied the charges during the trial. He also backed the Khalafian family’s claims that the young man was tortured to death during the interrogation. They argued that Khalafian left no fingerprints on the knife and, contrary to investigators’ claims, could not have stabbed himself twice.
Armenia -- Vahan Khalafian, a 24-year-old man who died in police custody on 13 April 2010, photo undated.
Both the family and the convicted police officer lodged appeals against the November verdict. Khalafian’s relatives demanded that Harutiunian and the three other policemen be imprisoned for murder.
The Court of Appeals rejected the protests. It only agreed to cut Harutiunian’s jail term by more than two years in accordance with a general amnesty declared by the Armenian authorities last month.
The ruling provoked angry protests from relatives of both the victim and Harutiunian present in the courtroom. Khalafian’s mother labeled the three policemen who avoided imprisonment as “murderers.” Artak Zeynalian, a legal representative of her family, claimed that the high court hearings on the case were a mere “formality” that upheld what he called an official cover-up of Khalafian’s death.
“We don’t need that amnesty,” Harutiunian’s mother said, for her part. “Did Ashot commit a crime to be amnestied?”
According to local and international human rights organizations, ill-treatment of criminal has long been the norm in Armenia. Amnesty International cited Khalafian’s case in its annual report released last month. “Perpetrators of human rights violations continued to enjoy impunity,” the London-based group said.