By Astghik Bedevian
About two dozen residents of the northern town of Vanadzor gathered outside the Armenian parliament Thursday to protest against their and their relatives’ alleged mistreatment by law-enforcement officials investigating the recent murder of a top local prosecutor.
Most of the protesters are employees of a restaurant owned by an arrested nephew of Vanadzor Mayor Samvel Darpinian. They again claimed that investigators beat and humiliated them in order to extract testimony implicating Darpinian in the August 26 shooting of Albert Ghazarian, the chief of prosecutor of the Lori region, of which Vanadzor is the capital. They also alleged that “mass” interrogations of local residents have created an atmosphere of fear in the area.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian dismissed the allegations as he addressed the National Assembly on Wednesday. “There are people disinterested in seeing this case solved,” he said. The inter-agency team of investigators “meticulously” analyzes local residents’ possible involvement in the high-profile crime before detaining and questioning them, he told lawmakers.
Still, Hovsepian’s spokesman Sona Truzian told RFE/RL on Thursday that he has ordered an internal inquiry into the torture allegations. Hovsepian also agreed to meet with the protesters later in the day. The meeting was arranged by Victor Dallakian, an opposition parliamentarian representing a Lori constituency.
Darpinian’s nephew Arman was arrested last week in apparent connection with the shooting. Although has only been charged with illegal weapons possession so far, his arrested came as an indication that the investigators regard the Vanadzor mayor and his and his extended family as a possible mastermind of Ghazarian’s assassination. The mayor and his relatives, who had a strained relationship with the late prosecutor, have strongly denied any involvement.
Several employees of Arman’s restaurant were detained and questioned last week. Most of them claimed to have been beaten up in custody. A restaurant manager, Karen Dodorian, had bruises all over his body after spending three days in detention. He was reportedly hospitalized earlier this week.
Another manager, Ashot Ghukasian, was detained and kept incommunicado for two days before his mother found out his whereabouts. “My son was badly beaten and insulted in the worst possible way by people from the prosecutor’s office in Yerevan,” she said, adding that they even cursed his recently deceased father.
“They didn’t quite interrogate us. They just beat us,” Arman Nersisian, another restaurant worker, told RFE/RL as he demonstrated outside the parliament building with his colleagues and their family members. “They hit me in the head. I kept telling them that I have a disability, but they didn’t care.”
Nersisian said the investigators sent from Yerevan wanted him to tell “how the prosecutor was killed,” “how Arman behaved after the crime” and whether he had firearms.
Another protester, waitress Satenik Parsamian, said they tried to force her to testify that the restaurant owner celebrated the prosecutor’s death. She also alleged that one of her interrogators threatened to sodomize her with a ruler. Even that did not force her to sign incriminating testimony against her boss, added Parsamian.
Unlike Parsamian, fellow waitress Anna Tumanian could not resist what she described as physical and psychological pressure. “They said that if we don’t sign the papers written by them, they will shave our heads and take us to a prison in Yerevan,” the young woman told RFE/RL. “I got terribly scared. They hit and jostled me, pulled my hair. What did I do to get such treatment?”
“I asked them to show what they want me to sign,” said Tumanian. “They replied rudely that it’s none of my business. So I signed [the trumped-up testimony] without knowing what’s in it.”
The Office of the Prosecutor-General denied and refused to investigate the torture claims earlier this week. Officials there argued that law-enforcement authorities have not received any written complaints from the alleged victims.
But as one of the protesters, Nune Mkhitarian, said, they have simply been unable to lodge such complaints. “You to the police department, they refer you to the court,” she said. “You go to the court, they refer you to the prosecutor’s office. You go to the prosecutor’s office, they tell you go to Yerevan.”
Police brutality and other forms of mistreatment of criminal suspects and witnesses are believed to be commonplace 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.
The problem came under fresh domestic and international spotlight last May when a young man was found dead at a police headquarters in Yerevan after several days of interrogations. Levon Gulian, 31, was questioned as a presumed witness of a murder committed in Yerevan earlier this year.
The police claimed that Gulian fell to his death while attempting to escape from the second-floor interrogation room. But his wife and other relatives, backed by local human rights groups, believe that he was tortured to death.