Cavalier Use of Custody in Armenia
The case of four men accused of minor property damage and held in jail for about six months without trial has become a cause celebre in Armenia. It has raised questions about the practice of detaining suspects for lengthy periods, and more broadly about how criminal cases are constructed.
The four young men were detained in April, accused of a number of instances of arson that damaged hay to a total value of 36,000 drams (90 US dollars).
Three of the suspects – Aram Mughalyan, Robert Piloyan, Gagik Arakelyan – are charged with hooliganism and destruction of property, which could carry seven-year sentences.
A fourth, Artur Klyan, was charged only with hooliganism. He has now been released from pre-trial custody after collapsing in court and spending 12 days in hospital.
It is quite normal for people to spend months in detention before going to trial in Armenia.
This case only achieved prominence because the four were from educated backgrounds in the capital Yerevan, and thus had contacts with the wherewithal to campaign on their behalf. All four are university graduates, Mughalyan from Cambridge University via a scholarship programme.
University professors, leading academics and two members of parliament from the ruling Republican Party added their names to an appeal for the men to be released pending trial.
Leading Yerevan city counsellor Anahit Bakhshyan wrote to Armenia’s chief prosecutor arguing that holding suspects for months on end was punitive and hardly a sensible use of public funds.
“Was the punishment inflicted upon them really proportionate? What were these young men arrested for? Who have they harmed?” Bakhshyan asked in the letter.
The story began when Siaband Khudoyan, from the village Norapat in the Armavir region, phoned police on three occasions to report that someone had set his hay on fire.
Police failed to find the culprits, but tracked the four men down from a car number plate. They were pulled in, interrogated over 18 days, and then formally charged and placed in pre-trial detention.
Their defence lawyers filed numerous court applications for conditional release, but all were turned down.
Khachik Gevorgyan, the head of Armacad, a network of academic researchers, told IWPR, that the charges did not merit prolonged custody.
“In my opinion, and in that of many people involved in civic issues, it is a massively disproportionate punishment for individuals to be held in detention on such charges,” he said.
Prosecutors have avoided commenting on the matter.
Preparations for the trial have been further delayed because the lead prosecutor was reassigned, and his replacement needed time to study the case files.
Their case appears to be based largely on a videoed confession by Mughalyan, a piece of evidence that was revealed before trial when it was shown on a popular police crime show on TV.
Mkrtich Davtyan, counsel for two other suspects, Piloyan and Arakelyan, alleges that the confession was extracted from Mughalyan through coercion and without a lawyer present. He told IWPR that his own client Piloyan was beaten, and that prosecutors were refusing to allow physical evidence of this to be presented in court.
“The only evidence is the video of Aram [Mughalyan], even though investigators obtained his confession by pressuring him,” Davtyan said. “I hope that this will be made clear at the court hearing, and that the video will not be admitted as evidence.”
Mughalyan announced a hunger strike to protest against his continued detention. On October 2, his lawyers said he had spent 48 hours without even drinking water.
Until the trial begins, three of the four accused look certain to remain in custody. Some believe they might be freed under a general amnesty introduced to mark the 22nd anniversary of Armenian independence from the Soviet Union. The country’s parliament has already approved the amnesty, which is expected to see 1,200 or 1,300 prisoners released by December 25. It is not yet clear, however, whether the four accused will be included.
Anna Muradyan is a correspondent for the www.hetq.am website in Armenia.