The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday ordered the Armenian authorities to pay 50,000 euros ($56,000) in damages to three former Armenian soldiers who were prosecuted but eventually cleared of murdering two other servicemen in 2003.
The court ruled that Armenian prosecutors failed to properly investigate allegations that Musa Serobian, Arayik Zalian and Razmik Sargsian were tortured following their arrest in early 2004.
The three men were charged with beating to death fellow conscripts Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian near their army unit deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yeghiazarian’s and Mkrtumian’s bodies were recovered from a reservoir near the village of Mataghis in January 2004.
The case against them was essentially based on Razmik Sargsian’s April 2004 testimony in which he confessed to that version of events. Sargsian retracted the testimony shortly afterwards, saying that he was brutally tortured into incriminating himself and his two comrades.
An Armenian district court dismissed the torture claims, deemed credible by local and international human rights groups, when it sentenced Sargsian, Zalian and Serobian to 15 years in prison in 2005. The Court of Appeals toughened the sentence to life imprisonment in 2006.
However, the higher Court of Cassation unexpectedly annulled both verdicts, ordering the immediate release of the suspects and an “additional investigation” into the killings later in 2006. It was the first known case of an Armenian judicial body ruling against military prosecutors.
The three men went on a fresh trial in July 2008. But they were not again placed under arrest this time around, and the military prosecutors downgraded the accusations to violent assault and involuntary manslaughter carrying much shorter jail terms.
A court in Gyumri formally acquitted Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian in 2012. It also ordered military investigators to hunt for other murder suspects.
The investigators have not prosecuted anyone else since then. Human rights activists have repeatedly accused them of covering up the 2003 killings.
Despite their acquittal, the freed ex-soldiers filed lawsuits with the European Court of Human Rights, demanding material compensation for their ordeal.
In its 5-page verdict, the Strasbourg-based court found “insufficient evidence” of the torture alleged by the three men. Still, it said that relevant law-enforcement authorities “failed to make any serious attempts to investigate the allegations.”
“In particular, neither the alleged perpetrators nor any witnesses had been questioned and no medical examinations had been ordered,” reads the verdict. This fact, it says, constitutes a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court also described as unlawful the pre-trial arrest one of the former suspects, Zalian, awarding him 20,000 euros in damages. It said the Armenian state must pay the two other acquitted men 15,000 euros each.
The controversial murder investigation was personally overseen in 2004-2006 by Gagik Jahangirian, Armenia’s chief military prosecutor at the time and currently a parliament deputy from the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). He insisted that the three former soldiers are guilty of the murders even after their acquittal.
Another opposition parliamentarian, Zaruhi Postanjian, was the main defense lawyer for the arrested soldiers until 2007. She has for years decried the Jahangirian-led investigators’ handling of the high-profile case.