The trial got off to an extremely tense start, with relatives of the defendants and the victim trading insults and scuffling in and outside a court in the nearby town of Hrazdan that hears the case.
The main defendant, Major Ashot Harutiunian, stands accused of badly ill-treating Vahan Khalafian, a Charentsavan resident who was detained on suspicion on theft on April 13. Khalafian was found dead in police custody several hours later.
Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS), which has investigated the suspicious death, says the 24-year-old stabbed himself to death after enduring torture at the hands of Harutiunian and the three other officers put on trial. Unlike Harutiunian, who headed the criminal investigations unit at the Charentsavan police, they are not kept in detention.
Khalafian’s relatives, backed by some human rights activists, insist that the young man was tortured to death and that the SIS has failed to hold accountable all local police officials responsible for his brutal treatment. They argue, in particular, that forensic experts found two stab wounds and numerous other injuries all over his body.
Tension in the courtroom surged as soon as the accused men were brought in under heavy police guard. Relatives of the two sides shouted abuse at each other before the presiding judge adjourned the first court session, citing the absence of a defense lawyer. The bitter altercation degenerated into scuffles and, at one point, fistfights, which ended only after the intervention of the court’s security guards.
Harutiunian’s parents vehemently insisted on the jailed policeman’s innocence and at the same time denied the suicide theory, saying that Khalafian was beaten to death by other law-enforcement officers. “They killed the guy. What is Ashot to do with that?” his father told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“My son has said his conscience is clear and that he has no blood on his hands,” said the defendant’s mother. “And I trust my son.” “My son is here today in somebody else’s place,” she added without elaborating.
The dead man’s uncle, Hamik Khalafian, dismissed these claims, arguing that the three other defendants testified against their former boss during face-to-face interrogations. He also claimed that even before his nephew’s death, Harutiunian was notorious in Charentsavan for his brutal methods of interrogation. “We have heard from numerous people about his sadistic character and do not exclude that he himself did all that,”
“If there is some information that Ashot Harutiunian knows but does not want to publicize, that’s their problem,” he said. “We would be happy to see facts proving their son’s innocence.”
Harutiunian’s lawyer, Seda Safarian, said last month that her client rejects the accusations leveled against him under an Armenian Criminal Code article relating to abuse of power that results in “severe consequences.” Safarian indicated that he considers himself a police scapegoat. The lawyer insisted on Tuesday that the case has been “badly investigated.”
Khalafian’s death cast a new spotlight on the problem of police brutality, which human rights groups have long regarded as the most serious and widespread form of human rights violation in Armenia.