A criminal suspect in Armenia has died in suspicious circumstances after spending only several hours at a recently constructed prison that was billed by officials as the country’s first “European-style” penitentiary institution.
Anzor Karapetian, a 20-year-old resident of Armavir, a town close to the new prison, was found hanged in his cell early on January 4, the third such case registered there in less than a month.
The prison administration and law-enforcement authorities claim that he committed suicide. Armenia’s Investigative Committee has launched an inquiry under a Criminal Code article dealing with cases where individuals are “induced” to kill themselves. A spokeswoman for the law-enforcement agency said on Thursday that nobody has been arrested or charged yet.
Karapetian’s relatives categorically rule out the possibility of a suicide. They say that an autopsy found traces of violence on his body.
Karapetian was transferred to the Armavir prison late on January 3, three days after being arrested and charged with a murder attempt. He was found dead the following morning.
Karapetian’s father Marat said the young man was in a “normal mood” when he surrendered to the police on December 31. “He was not a miserable guy. He could not have taken his life,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Two other prisoners were found hanged at the Armavir jail in December. The official cause of their deaths was also suicide.
Artur Sakunts, an Armenian human rights activist, expressed serious concern at the incidents. “This means that there are quite serious problems with human rights in that institution and that bringing prison conditions into conformity with European standards alone does not guarantee humane treatment of inmates,” he said.
Designed for at least 800 inmates, the Armavir institution is Armenia’s first prison built after the Soviet collapse with funding and technical assistance provided by Western donors. It was inaugurated in late 2014 with a ceremony attended by President Serzh Sarkisian, then Justice Minister Hovannes Manukian and then U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern.
Manukian described the development as a major step towards improving the traditionally harsh prison conditions in Armenia by “making them meet European standards and requirements of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture.”
As recently as on December 15, 2015 Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian visited the Armavir prison to inaugurate new facilities built there. Abrahamian was accompanied by Richard Mills, the current U.S. ambassador, and Piotr Switalski, the head of the European Union Delegation in Yerevan. An Armenian government statement quoted Mills as describing the new prison as “a step forward on the way to reforming the judiciary and penitentiary institutions in Armenia.”
The current Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian, whose ministry oversees Armenia’s prisons and detention centers, also attended and spoke at the ceremony. Her press service on Thursday refused to comment on the string of Armavir prison deaths, saying that the criminal investigations into them are still not complete.
Ill-treatment of criminal suspects by police and other law-enforcement bodies has long been commonplace in Armenia. The U.S. State Department has highlighted the problem in detail in its annual reports on human rights in the country.