By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The parents of a 22-year-old soldier who was apparently beaten to death by fellow servicemen late last month demanded on Monday that law-enforcement authorities in Yerevan take over the official investigation into yet another noncombat fatality in the Armenian military.
Artem Sarkisian, who was one of the organizers of anti-government protests staged by doctoral students in November, died on February 25, two days after sustaining heavy injuries in a tiny army detachment in the northern city of Vanadzor. Doctors at a local military hospital concluded that Sarkisian was killed by food poisoning.
But an autopsy conducted in Yerevan found severe brain and abdominal injuries that testified a violent death. Mortuary officials told the soldier’s family that his life could have been saved if he had received medical aid on time.
It emerged later that after the beating, which occurred at a weekend, Sarkisian spent more than a day in the barracks in agonizing pain, unable call a doctor. His commander was reportedly absent from the unit.
Officials from the regional office of military prosecutor investigating the crime told RFE/RL that they have arrested several individuals, including the two soldiers who assaulted Sarkisian early on February 24. They will face up to 12 years in prison if they are found guilty by the court.
But the dead soldier’s mother dismissed the official assurances, saying that the inquiry will not be objective and comprehensive unless it is run by military prosecutors with no connections in Vanadzor. “All we demand is a fair trial for the murderers of our son,” Karine Sarkisian told RFE/RL.
She said she does not think that the incident was linked to her son’s participation in a series of anti-government protests last November that took place shortly he was drafted to the army. Sarkisian was among several dozen doctoral students from state-run universities who unexpectedly received call-up papers and written orders to report for military duty.
The protesters argued that under Armenian law they should have been drafted only after completing their studies. But the government, acting at the behest of the defense ministry, ruled that only those doctoral students that have state-funded fellowships and study free of charge can have their compulsory military service deferred.
Sarkisian’s violent death was an ominous reminder of widespread bullying and mistreatment of conscripts in the Armenian army. In its most recent report on Armenia, the New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned “widespread torture, beatings, and noncombat fatalities of soldiers in the army” and accused military investigators of covering up many such crimes.
According to the defense ministry, there were 56 noncombat deaths in the military last year and 64 such cases in 2000. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian has recently claimed a steady decline in army crimes.
However, a former defense ministry official claimed in an RFE/RL interview last December that the military prosecutors are unwilling to investigate instances of murder, hazing and bullying in the army because of kickbacks paid by senior officers in whose units those crimes take place. Ruben Martirosian, who held a senior post in the ministry’s oversight department from 1998-2000, said that Armenia’s controversial chief military prosecutor, Gagik Jahangirian, is personally responsible for the cover-up.
Last July a presidential commission on human rights called for criminal proceedings to be launched against Jahangirian for what it called widespread mistreatment of arrested servicemen in military police custody. Prosecutor-General Aram Tamazian ordered an inquiry into the allegations at the time. An ad hoc commission of seven prosecutors has still to publicize its findings, however.