YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—A young civic activist is facing criminal proceedings and the possibility of up to two years’ imprisonment for helping to trigger a scandal about the alleged sexual and other abuse at a Yerevan school for children with special needs.
The Armenian police formally charged Mariam Sukhudian of the environment protection group SOS Teghut with “false denunciation” at the weekend after months of investigation into the allegations circulated by local media, including state television.
Sukhudian was among about a dozen young people who worked as volunteers at the Boarding School No. 11 in Yerevan’s Nubarashen suburb in April-June 2008 as part of a United Nations project to boost educational standards in Armenia. In their subsequent public pronouncements, they accused the school administration of failing to ensure the minimal standards of teaching and hygiene and routinely ill-treating and malnourishing students.
“According to the children’s accounts, they are subjected to beatings and other forms of physical punishment,” the volunteers said in a joint statement issued in November. “We personally witnessed needlessly harsh treatment of children by teachers and night guards. The school director and other administrative workers use children as a free labor force in their homes and summer houses.”
The statement also cited some schoolgirls as alleging sexual harassment by one of their teachers, Levon Avagian. “According to the stories from the girls, there was at least one case of rape,” it charged.
Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls, subsequently identified a Diana Amirkhanian, and alerted Armenian media about her claims. The state-controlled Armenian Public Television aired two reports on the scandal, prompting the police to launch a criminal investigation. One of those reports featured an interview with another teenage girl who likewise claimed to have been molested by Avagian.
The police inquiry cleared the school personnel and Avagian in particular of any wrongdoing in February, even though the latter quit his job for still unknown reasons. The police initially moved to prosecute Amirkhanian but eventually turned on Sukhudian. A police statement earlier this month said that the young activist deliberately got Amirkhanian to “slander” her teacher for “personal gain.” It said the student renounced her claims during the inquiry.
Sukhudian was summoned to the police department of the Nubarashen and Erebuni districts and charged under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code dealing with “false denunciation” on Saturday. It carries heavy fines and a prison sentence of up to two years.
Sukhudian rejected the accusation as a police fabrication, saying that Amirkhanian was bullied into withdrawing her initial account. “When I last talked to the girl over the phone, she said, ‘I’m sorry, but when I go to the police I will lie because my mother beat me, because one gray-haired man from the school spoke to my mother and after that I was banned from saying anything,” she told RFE/RL. Sukhudian said she recorded the conversation and gave it to the police.
“The investigative body has made no evaluation of the recording of the phone conversation with Diana Amirkhanian,” her lawyer, Nona Galstian, told RFE/RL. Galstian claimed that the criminal investigation into the scandal has been deeply flawed also because the Erebuni police have not questioned some key witnesses and avoided a face-to-face interrogation of Sukhudian and Amirkhanian.
The Nubarashen school principal, Meruzhan Yengibarian, angrily refused any comment when contacted by RFE/RL. Interviewed by Public Television last November, Yengibarian shrugged off his students’ allegations, saying that many of them have a “very rich imagination” because of their mental and physical defects.
“They may say things which you won’t find even in science fiction books,” said Yengibarian. He also rebutted the young volunteers’ claims that quite a few “utterly healthy children” also study in his school.
The claims were echoed, however, by Harutiun Minasian, a well-known psychiatrist who briefly worked at the boarding school in 1988. Minasian told Public Television that Yengibarian forced him to quit because he found many of the schoolchildren sane, something which required their relocation to other schools. He said the principal had a vested interest in having as many students as possible.
When asked to assess the mental condition of Amirkhanian, the girl at the center of the abuse scandal, the psychiatrist said, “She seems to be absolutely healthy.”
Sukhudian, meanwhile, linked the extraordinary criminal case with her and her non-governmental organization’s vocal opposition to plans by Armenia’s second-largest mining company to develop Teghut, a massive copper and molybdenum field in the northern Lori region. The project, if implemented, will lead to the destruction of hundreds of hectares of rich forests. Armenia’s current and former first ladies signed a petition against the project when they were approached by Sukhudian and other SOS Teghut activists in early June.
“I can’t help but link this case with Teghut because I’m not the first activist to be subjected to such pressure,” Sukhudian said on Saturday. “This may be a good opportunity [for the authorities] to break our movement and force me to shut up. But it’s only making me stronger.”