A law-enforcement body investigating the recent suspicious death of a man in Armenian police custody on Friday appeared to have moved closer to endorsing police claims that it was the result of a suicide, rather than torture.
In a written statement, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) said forensic experts have concluded that Vahan Khalafian, a resident of the central town of Charentsavan, may have stabbed himself to death at the local police station.
Khalafian and several other young men were detained by the Charentsavan police on April 13 on suspicion of stealing 1.5 million drams ($3,900) worth of goods from a local entrepreneur. The 24-year-old was found dead several hours later.
The Armenian police and their chief Alik Sargsian in particular claimed that he was not ill-treated during the interrogation and committed suicide. However, the SIS called this version of events into question by arresting two police officers and charging them with torture.
Sargsian admitted later in April misleading the public about the scandalous case, saying he himself was “deceived” by his subordinates into believing that Khalafian was not beaten up in detention. Still, the police chief insisted that Khalafian killed himself with a kitchen knife kept in a policeman’s drawer.
In their final report cited by the SIS, state forensic medics who examined Khalafian’s body confirmed that they found two stab wounds on the dead man’s abdomen. They said the nature of those wounds and their “anatomic location” suggest that “their infliction by V. Khalafian upon himself is possible.”
The experts also found numerous injuries in various parts of his body. But they said none of those were life-threatening.
That Khalafian sustained two knife wounds was earlier reported by members of his family and Artur Sakunts, a human rights activist investigating his death. They believe that he could not have stabbed himself twice and was simply tortured to death.
The forensic experts said in that regard that only one of the stab wounds is likely to have been deadly, a conclusion that may well be seized upon by the police.
The SIS, which is directly subordinated to Armenian prosecutors, did not specify on Friday whether it itself has already arrived at any conclusion as to the precise cause of Khalafian’s death. “The investigation is continuing,” concluded it statement.
Nor did the law-enforcement body say whether it has succeeded in locating two other Charentsavan men who were also detained on April 13 for the same reason but were set free the next day. Norayr Chilian and Arayik Arakelian left Armenia just days later.
Sakunts claimed last week that the police forced Chilian and Arakelian to go abroad to prevent their embarrassing witness accounts of torture. The SIS implicitly denies these claims. It said SIS investigators are now trying to contact and question the two witnesses.