Vahan Khalafian, a 24-year-old resident of Charentsavan, died in April 2010 several hours after he was detained by police, along with several other men, on suspicion of theft. His death had a strong public resonance, highlighting endemic police brutality in Armenia.
State prosecutors said that Khalafian stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife after being physically abused by Major Ashot Harutiunian, a senior Charentsavan police officer, in the presence of three other policemen.
A lower court sentenced Harutiunian to eight years in prison on corresponding charges, another police officer received a suspended two-year prison sentence while the two others were acquitted.
Khalafian’s family claimed, however, that the young man was tortured to death during the interrogation and demanded that the police officers be imprisoned for murder.
Earlier this week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered a judgement on this high-profile case, confirming that the Armenian authorities failed to protect Khalafian’s life. It found violations of Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, concerning right to life and ill-treatment.
The European Court stated on November 8 that the version of Khalafian’s suicide was entirely based on the testimony of two police officers involved in the incident, who, according to the ECtHR, “could not be considered impartial witnesses.”
The Court said that the authorities disregarded “false and misleading testimony” and that no real attempts to clarify the contradictions were made. It also obliged Armenia to pay the applicants 50,000 euros in respect of nonpecuniary damage.
Lawyer Ara Ghazarian, who was one of the representatives of Khalafian’s legal successors in the ECtHR, said he was generally satisfied with the judgement. “The Court addressed the most important thing, i.e. that the investigation was ineffective, and hinted that, since the investigation was conducted with great shortcomings, the State did not ensure freedom from torture and the safety of life. The European Court hinted that it was representatives of the State, officials, that is, police officers, who took the man’s life,” Ghazarian said.
The European Court emphasized that it was not its task to find out the real cause of Khalafian’s death, at the same time noting that the Armenian authorities did nothing in this direction.
Khalafian’s relatives say they still feel the pain 12 years after his death and believe that the ECtHR’s judgement may pave the way for a reinvestigation of the case and possible retrial.
“We would feel satisfied if all those persons who had at least some relation to this case be punished. And there are many such people, not one, not two ... there are many of them,” Ani Khalafian, the sister of Vahan Khalafian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Wednesday.
This week the ECtHR also delivered a judgement in another high-profile case from 2010 concerning the death of Lieutenant Artak Nazarian in noncombat conditions that heightened public concerns in Armenia about violent crimes committed in the army.
Nazarian, 30, was found dead on an army post near Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan in July 2010. Military prosecutors said that he shot himself to death after being systematically ill-treated by a deputy commander of his battalion and three other soldiers. They were arrested later in 2010 and eventually sentenced to between three and ten years in prison on charges of driving Nazarian to commit suicide.
Nazarian’s relatives claimed, however, that he was murdered by more high-level officers who avoided prosecution. They also accused military prosecutors of covering up the crime.
The ECtHR found on November 8 that the state had failed to comply with its obligation to take appropriate measures to safeguard Nazarian’s life during his military service. The ECHR also considered that the investigation conducted in the case had not been sufficiently thorough and had failed to protect the applicants’ interests and to enable them to properly exercise their rights.
It obliged Armenia to pay the applicants jointly 20,000 euros in respect of nonpecuniary damage and 3,500 euros in respect of costs and expenses.