By Emil Danielyan
One of the world’s most respected human rights watchdogs has launched a blistering attack on the Armenian authorities, charging a high level cover-up of a September murder in a Yerevan café, widely blamed on President Robert Kocharian’s security service.
In a damning indictment of the official inquiry into the crime, the New York-based Human Rights Watch challenged Armenian prosecutors’ claim that Poghos Poghosian, an ethnic Armenian from Georgia, died accidentally in a brawl with one of Kocharian’s security men. It said Poghosian was in fact beaten to death by several presidential guards and accused the Armenian president of reneging on his pledge to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“Research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Yerevan…strongly indicated that Poghosian was beaten and kicked to death by a group of security personnel, who also assaulted two of Poghosian's acquaintances as they tried to help him,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement released on Thursday.
“The charge in this case does not reflect the seriousness of the crime, nor does it take into account that there was more than one perpetrator,” Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the group’s Europe and Central Asia division, was quoted as saying. “It is a nominal charge that sends a chilling message to the Armenian people that state security personnel can kill with virtual impunity.”
Prosecutor-General Aram Tamazian, presenting results of the probe to reporters on December 13, said that a drunken Poghosian, 43, clashed with a presidential bodyguard in the restroom of the popular café on September 25 after making “obscene remarks” about Kocharian as the latter left the nightspot minutes before. The prosecutors investigating the fatal incident concluded that Poghosian died after falling over and hitting the toilet floor with the back side of his head.
The guard, Aghamal Harutiunian, was on November 28 formally charged with involuntary manslaughter -- a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.
The findings of the official inquiry have been dismissed by Poghosian’s brother Andranik who insists, citing some witness accounts, that the victim was assaulted by several Kocharian bodyguards. Prosecutor-General Tamazian, however, argued that the investigators have questioned more than 50 witnesses and only one of them testified that Poghosian was beaten to death by several persons.
But according to Human Rights Watch, many witnesses are scared of telling the truth in their testimony, fearing punishment by the authorities. “Although dozens witnessed as the bodyguards began to beat Poghosian on the terrace of the Aragast café, fear of retribution and a resulting conspiracy of silence have starved the investigation of reliable testimony,” the US watchdog said.
“Despite his public expressions of support for the investigation, the reality is that President Kocharian has failed to make witnesses feel safe in coming forward, and so have the law enforcement agencies,” Andersen charged.
Officials from the presidential administration, the prosecutor’s office and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential pro-Kocharian party with which the late Poghosian was affiliated, could not be reached for comment on Saturday. Dashnaktsutyun leaders have so far refrained from publicly commenting on the course of the investigation.
The Human Rights Watch statement added that the authorities’ handling of the café murder probe reflects “broad immunity for abuse, including for torture and deaths in custody,” enjoyed by the Armenian law-enforcement agencies.
Another leading international rights group, Amnesty International, likewise concluded in a report last May that torture and ill-treatment of suspects in custody is the most widespread form of human rights abuses in Armenia. Amnesty criticized Yerevan for failure to investigate all instances of police brutality “thoroughly and impartially.”