YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenian prosecutors have taken over a criminal investigation into the suspicious death of a young man in police custody, which is casting a renewed spotlight on notorious interrogation techniques of the Armenian police.
The Special Investigative Service (SIS), the investigating arm of the Office of the Prosecutor-General, on Friday challenged police claims that Vahan Khalafian stabbed himself to death at a police station in Charentsavan, a small town about 40 kilometers north of Yerevan.
Khalafian and three other young men were detained by the Charentsavan police Tuesday on suspicion of stealing 1.5 million drams ($3,800) worth of goods from another local resident. A statement issued by the national police service the next day said all of them confessed to the crime.
The statement claimed that after the interrogation, Khalafian suddenly took a “kitchen knife” from a police officer’s drawer and fatally wounded himself in the stomach. It said the 24-year-old suffered from a mental disorder and was exempted from military service for that reason in 2005.
The Armenian police chief, Alik Sargsian, stood by this version of events at a news conference held on Wednesday. He dismissed claims, made by the dead man’s relative and backed by some Armenian newspapers, that Khalafian was tortured to death.
The police launched a criminal case in connection with the incident under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code dealing with suicides. The SIS announced on Friday that it has taken over the inquiry and is considering several theories, including “a hypothesis about Vahan Khalafian’s murder by employees of the Charentsavan division of the Armenian police.”
In a written statement, the SIS pointed to a forensic examination of Khalafian’s body that was conducted in Yerevan on Thursday in the presence of one of the man’s uncles, Vartan Khalafian. The law-enforcement agency did not publicize its findings, saying only that the corpse will undergo “several other examinations” in the coming days.
The Yerevan daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” on Friday quoted another Khalafian uncle, Hamik, as saying that forensic experts found two deep cuts on the dead man’s stomach and injuries in other parts of his body. He said they also did not detect any tears on Khalafian’s shirt that might have been caused by a sharp object.
“If we believe the police theory, the young man took out the knife, then bared his belly and stabbed himself,” wrote “Haykakan Zhamanak.” “What is more, he did that twice and kept the belly bare in the process.” “It’s not hard to tell just how credible such a scenario is,” added the paper.
Artur Sakunts, a prominent human rights campaigner investigating the affair, openly accused the Charentsavan police of brutally ill-treating Khalafian during the interrogation. He claimed that the three other local residents suspected of theft were also beaten up in police custody.
Ill-treatment of criminal suspects has long been regarded as the most frequent form of human rights violations in Armenia. Local and international human rights groups continue to accuse the police and other law-enforcement bodies of extracting confessions by force and intimidation.
“Witnesses continued to report that police beat citizens during arrest and interrogation while in detention,” the U.S. State Department said in its annual report on human rights practices in Armenia released last month. It said “most cases of police mistreatment continued to go unreported because of fear of retribution.” Armenian courts usually dismiss torture claims made by suspects, added the report.
The Charentsavan incident is bound to prompt parallels with the May 2007 death in police custody of Levon Gulian, a 31-year-old resident of Yerevan. Gulian was questioned at the police Directorate General of Criminal Investigations as a presumed witness of a deadly shooting that took place outside a restaurant belonging to him.
The police claimed that Gulian fell to his death while attempting to escape from a second-floor interrogation room of the police building in downtown Yerevan. Gulian’s relatives, backed by human rights groups, vehemently disputed the claim, saying that he was apparently tortured before being thrown out of the window.
A resulting public outcry forced Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General to launch an official inquiry into the circumstances of the Gulian’s death. The inquiry ended in March 2008 with an endorsement of the police version of the incident.
Three months later, a Yerevan court backed the Gulian family’s demand for a new inquiry. The SIS conducted and terminated the inquiry in April 2009, citing lack of evidence of police torture.