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Armenian civil rights activists have expressed serious concern over the appointment of a police official who has for years faced allegations of brutal torture as the new chief of Yerevan’s police department.

The official, Ashot Karapetian, has replaced Nerses Nazarian, the longtime chief of the Yerevan police sacked on Monday. Karapetian previously headed the Directorate General of Criminal Investigations at the national police service.

Karapetian’s name figured in a ruling against the Armenian government that was handed down by the European Court of Human Rights last October. The case stems from an appeal lodged by Grisha Virabian, a former opposition activist, in connection with his April 2004 arrest by police in Artashat, a town 30 kilometers south of Yerevan.

Virabian was taken to the local police station after leading a group of local residents to Yerevan during the Armenian opposition’s March-April 2004 campaign of demonstrations aimed at forcing then President Robert Kocharian to resign. He was questioned for several hours before undergoing urgent surgery in a local hospital the following day. One of his testicles was removed as a result.

Karapetian was apparently among the officers that questioned the then 44-year-old activist. Virabian claims that Karapetian hit him in the crotch with a metal bar.

The police denied at the time torturing him, saying that the oppositionist himself assaulted his interrogators. Virabian risked at least five years in prison on corresponding charges before the criminal case against him was dropped in August 2009.

In its ruling, the Strasbourg-based court found Virabian’s claims substantiated, saying that the Armenian authorities violated two key provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. It ordered the authorities to pay him 31,000 euros ($40,000) in damages.

The case came under the renewed media spotlight immediately after Karapetian was appointed as Yerevan police chief. Human rights campaigners and other civic activists have cited it in their criticism of the appointment. Karapetian was quoted by Emedia.am on Tuesday as insisting that he has never ill-treated criminal suspects.

Arman Danielian, head of the non-governmental Civil Society Institute, brought up the case on Wednesday during parliamentary hearings on ways of boosting public trust in the Armenian police. “That Grisha Virabian was tortured in police custody is a fact,” he said.

“That Ashot Karapetian worked at the police station where Virabian was tortured is also a fact. That a criminal case [on the torture allegations] has never been opened is also a fact. How can I now trust the police?” asked Danielian.

Artur Osikian, a deputy chief of the national police attending the hearings, claimed to be unaware of the European court ruling. “Maybe this is just the plaintiff’s opinion, rather than the court’s decision,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).

“I respect Ashot Karapetian a lot, he is a real professional,” added Osikian.

“Mr. Osikian is right, Ashot Karapetian is a professional torturer,” countered Vahe Grigorian, a lawyer who helped Virabian appeal to the Strasbourg court. “The right place for such persons is prison.”

Local and international watchdogs have long described police torture as one of the most frequent forms of human rights abuses in Armenia. They say that the practice remains commonplace despite government pledges to combat it.

Vladimir Gasparian, the national police chief who appointed Karapetian to the new position, last year publicly warned police officers against using force to extract confessions from detainees.
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