By Ruzanna Stepanian and Emil Danielyan
An international human rights organization has joined its Armenian counterparts in demanding a “thorough and independent” inquiry into last week’s death in police custody of a young man widely regarded as the latest victim of police brutality in Armenia.
Levon Gulian died on Saturday while being questioned at the Armenian police headquarters as a presumed witness of a deadly shooting that took place outside his Yerevan restaurant earlier last week. The police claimed that during the interrogation he tried to escape through a window but slipped and fell to his death from the second floor of the police building.
Gulian’s family vehemently rejected this theory, saying that the 30-year-old father of two was tortured to death by police investigators. Family members say his body carries numerous traces of violence and will not be buried until it is examined by independent forensic experts. More than a dozen of them, joined by Armenian human rights and other civic activists, demonstrated outside the national Police Service on Tuesday.
“We will go to the end,” said Gulian’s sister Armine. “We will do everything to have the guilty punished.”
“I suspect that Levon’s death was caused by torture. Let the police prove the opposite,” Artak Kirakosian of the Civil Society Institute, told an ensued news conference.
Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), described these suspicions as “legitimate” in a letter to Lieutenant-General Hayk Harutiunian, chief of the Police Service, sent on Thursday. Rhodes cited a “past record of suspicious cases of death in police custody in Armenia and the fact that torture and ill-treatment by the police remain serious problems.” He urged Harutiunian to “ensure that all the circumstances leading to [Gulian’s] death be investigated thoroughly and independently.”
The outcry already forced Harutiunian to order earlier this week an internal police inquiry into the extraordinary incident, which is also being investigated by Armenian prosecutors. The Office of the Prosecutor-General launched a criminal case under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that deals with cases where individuals are forced to commit suicide.
The dead man’s relatives fear this is a sign that the prosecutors will clear the police of any wrongdoing. They wrote to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian on Tuesday, asking him to prevent what they see as a high-level cover-up.
Sarkisian assured reporters on Wednesday that he took the relatives’ concerns seriously. “Once the [police] inquiry is over, relevant bodies will provide information to the public,” he said.
Gulian was the owner of a restaurant in Yerevan’s southern Shengavit district near which a man was shot dead on May 9 in a reported dispute between two groups of unknown individuals. Gulian was detained and questioned for two days at Shengavit’s police department. He was set free only to be again arrested by the Police Service’s Directorate General of Criminal Investigations. Family members say Gulian told them that he was badly mistreated by the Shengavit police before being driven to his last interrogation by Hovik Tamamian, deputy chief of the feared police unit.
Tamamian is known as a figure close to President Robert Kocharian who played a major role in a 2004 government crackdown on the Armenian opposition. He was sacked as chief of central Yerevan’s police department and given his current post last year, reportedly under pressure from the police leadership.
Sayad Shirinian, the chief police spokesman, chided the press on Wednesday for “speculating” about Tamamian’s possible involvement in the man’s death. “If it is established that Hovik Tamamian was involved, all of us will condemn him,” he said.
According to local and Western watchdogs, torture and mistreatment in custody are the most common form of human rights violations in Armenia. The practice seems to have continued unabated since the Armenian parliament’s ratification in 2002 of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights.
(Family photo: Levon Gulian pictured with his two children.)