The Armenian Defense Ministry reported on Thursday evening that an “incident” involving “use of firearms” and resulting in an unspecified number of casualties took place at one of its military bases on Wednesday. It gave no details, saying only that military investigators have received “strictest orders” to clarify all circumstances of the incident.
A source close to the Armenian government told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that it occurred at an Armenian army unit in Nagorno-Karabakh. The source said a soldier serving there shot dead four officers before turning his gun on himself.
Artur Sakunts, an Armenian human rights campaigner, gave similar information to the Lragir.am news service. But he cautioned that it is “preliminary and unconfirmed.”
Nazarian’s relatives swiftly rejected the official theory and accused the military of a cover-up. “He believed in God and knew that suicide is a great sin,” his grief-stricken mother, Hasmik Hovannisian, told RFE/RL on Thursday. “He could not have committed suicide. They savagely slaughtered my boy.”
“He was safe and sound when I gave him [to the army,]” she cried. “What are they giving me back?”
Nazarian’s elder sister, Sona, was convinced that the 30-year-old was either forced to commit suicide or killed by fellow servicemen. “If it was a suicide, just imagine how much suffering and humiliation he endured before resorting to that,” she said. “If it was a murder, just imagine what predators live among us.”
Nazarian’s cousin Narek Gharibian was present at a forensic examination of his body that was conducted at a Yerevan morgue on Wednesday. Gharibian told RFE/RL that forensic medics found numerous injuries on the dead officer’s face, hands, shoulders and feet and believe that they were inflicted several hours before his death.
The medics will formally present their finding within a month, added Gharibian. An official death certificate given to the family on Thursday contains no definitive cause of the death. Nazarian’s face was heavily made up when his body was brought home and lay in state later on Thursday.
The relatives also said that Nazarian complained of having difficult relations with his commanders and other officers shortly after enrolling in contractual military service and being sent to an army unit in the northeastern Tavush region last November. They said he was treated as a “weak” officer who can not impose his will on soldiers.
Sources told RFE/RL that military investigators, who are subordinated to Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, have questioned several officers from Nazarian’s unit. None of them has been arrested or charged so far.
The Armenian Armed Forces have been plagued with hazing and other abuses resulting in at least a dozen non-combat deaths each year ever since their establishment in 1992. Senior and mid-ranking army officers have rarely been prosecuted in connection with those crimes. Those who are put on trial usually get off with short prison sentences.
In a June 2008 statement cited by the U.S. State Department earlier this year, families of soldiers who died during military service between 2005 and 2008 accused authorities of systematically conducting false investigations into those deaths and destroying or tampering with evidence in order to disguise homicides as accidents, suicides, or the results of sniper attacks.
The Armenian military insists that it is doing its best to address the problem in earnest. It says the number of such incidents has steadily and significantly declined since the late 1990s. According to Defense Ministry data, at least seven Armenian soldiers died due to abuse and mistreatment and eleven others committed suicide last year.