By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian police insisted on Tuesday that a young man who died in police custody earlier this month was not tortured by his interrogators despite claims to the contrary made by his family and local human rights groups.
Presenting the “preliminary results” of an internal inquiry into the high-profile incident, the Police Service stood by its earlier assertion that Levon Gulian fell to his death while attempting to escape from the police headquarters in Yerevan where he was being questioned as a murder witness.
The inquiry was ordered by the chief of the law-enforcement agency, Lieutenant-General Hayk Harutiunian, last week in response to an outcry sparked by Gulian’s death. The 30-year-old man’s relatives believe that he was tortured to death during the interrogation. Local and international human rights organizations have given weight to these allegations, saying that police torture has long been the norm in Armenia.
Gulian was detained and questioned as a witness of a deadly shooting that took place outside his restaurant in Yerevan’s southern Shengavit district on May 9. Family members say he told them that he was beaten by Shengavit police officers before being taken to the Police Service’s Directorate General of Criminal Investigations for what proved to be his last interrogation on May 12.
The family agreed to bury the father of two on Monday only after his body, which they say had traces of violence, was examined by medical experts from Belgium and Germany. The two experts were due to present their conclusions to journalists in Yerevan on Saturday. But their news conference was cancelled at the last minute for reasons that remain unclear.
Armen Harutiunian, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, said law-enforcement authorities asked them not to publicize their findings for now in the interests of a separate criminal investigation conducted by state prosecutors. But according to Karen Hakobian, a human rights activist who help to arrange the independent forensic examination, the experts simply need more time to ascertain the cause of Gulian’s death.
“I think we will be able to present their findings to you within a week,” Hakobian told reporters on Saturday.
The Office of the Prosecutor-General launched its investigation under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that deals with cases where individuals are forced to commit suicide. The police insisted, however, that Gulian tried to escape through the window of a second-floor interrogation room and accidentally “fell down in the process.”
In a written statement, police also claimed that Gulian witnessed and was even involved in the mysterious shooting, saying that the battery of his mobile phone was found by the body of another young shot dead outside his restaurant. “During the interrogations L. Gulian hid important facts relating to the case and the identity of the individuals who committed the murder,” the statement said.
Gulian’s relatives insist that he only told a group of quarrelling men to walk away from the restaurant moments before the shooting and knew nothing else about its circumstances. Joined by dozens of civil society activists and other people and holding candles, they silently marched to the main police building in Yerevan later on Saturday.