Armenia’s Court of Appeals upheld on Thursday controversial guilty verdicts stemming from the 2010 death of a soldier which heightened public awareness of violent crimes committed in the Armenian army.
The panel of three judges kept unchanged a lower court’s recent decision to sentence five other soldiers to between three and ten years in prison on charges of driving Lieutenant Artak Nazarian to commit suicide.
Nazarian, 30, was found dead on an army post near Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan in July 2010. Military prosecutors say that he shot himself to death after being systematically ill-treated by a deputy commander of his battalion and three other soldiers. They were arrested later in 2010.
Nazarian’s relatives believe, however, that he was murdered by more high-level officers who avoided prosecution. They have accused military prosecutors of covering up the crime.
The late officer’s mother, Hasmik Hovannisian, condemned the “criminal judges” for upholding the verdicts that were handed down by a court in the northern Tavush province in May. “We will go till the end,” she said, pledging to challenge the ruling at higher courts.
Relatives of the defendants, who deny the accusations, also reacted angrily to the decision made by the Court of Appeals, chanting “Shame!” and cursing the judges. The family of Captain Hakob Manukian, who got a 10-year prison sentence, was especially furious.
The relatives and their lawyers slammed the high court for refusing to question any witnesses, and study evidence in the case and rejecting virtually all of their petitions made during the hearings. Ruben Martirosian, the lawyer representing Nazarian’s family, again accused military prosecutors and the two courts of ignoring serious injuries that were found on the lieutenant’s body. Martirosian insisted that they could not have been caused by any of the arrested servicemen.
Nazarian’s death and a resulting outcry from civic groups cast a renewed spotlight on chronic non-combat deaths in Armenia’s armed forces. The greater public resonance led the Armenian military and Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian in particular to promise a tougher crackdown on hazing. Dozens of military personnel have been arrested, fired or demoted since then.
Military authorities have also reported a sizable decrease in the number of Armenian soldiers dying in non-combat circumstances. However, civic activists monitoring army crime insist that the authorities are still not doing enough to eradicate the problem.
The military reported four non-combat deaths as recently as last month. Three of them are said to have been suicides resulting from hazing or other abuses. Military investigators have so far reported no arrests.
The latest non-combat casualty was announced on Wednesday. According to the Defense Ministry, Manuchar Manucharian, a 19-year-old conscript who was drafted from the northern Armenian city of Vanadzor, shot and killed himself while being on frontline duty in Nagorno-Karabakh. The ministry’s Investigative Department suggested that he was driven to suicide.
The soldier’s mother, Marine Mkhitarian, rejected the preliminary official theory on Thursday. “He loved life and his family very much,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “He cheered me up all the time.”
Artur Sakunts, a Vanadzor-based human rights campaigner monitoring army crimes, also voiced misgivings, saying that the military often portrays murders as suicides to save officers from prosecution. “That is why we have big doubts about the suicide theories,” he said.
According to Sakunts’s Helsinki Citizens Assembly, 20 Armenian soldiers have died in non-combat circumstances so far this year. The military has released no such data for 2013 yet.